March 17, 2011

07.03: GET LOW

Get Low played as the opening film of the Wellington Film Society's 2011 season. It was a packed audience (one of the largest they've had I hear) and I was lucky enough to have my lady surprise me by purchasing me a full year's membership for my birthday. She's a sneaky one, she is.

The film is the (apparently true, but no doubt lovingly embellished) tale of a hermit, in Tennessee circa 1930, who decides to host his own funeral party - while he's still alive. Not an entirely silly idea, to my mind. A big party in your honour - why wouldn't you want to be there to enjoy it? My paternal grandfather thought much the same and had what you could call a "living wake" before he got low himself. Central to the film, however, are the mysterious circumstances that led to Robert Duvall's Felix Bush hiding himself from the world. The film opens on the haunting image of an old wooden house, engulfed in flames, set against the night sky. Someone tumbles out, covered in flames. And then the silhouette of a man in a long coat, tears across the field and away. What happened here? What was this strange conflagration and what does it mean? These questions sit in the back of your mind as you become entranced with the intriguing, ornery, intelligent and lonely Felix Bush.

Duvall as the feared hermit, is as good here as he's ever been. Bush is a loner of his own making, living his segregated life for the past 40 years on the outskirts of a small Southern town, only occasionally interrupted by the daring local kids. The reveal of the man beneath the uncompromising local legend is slow, and Duvall does it effortlessly. Duvall brings this character to muttering, breathing life. Despite Bush's sealed off lifestyle, his desire to drive everyone away, he decides he wants to throw a funeral party and have people come and tell stories about him. The man who takes on this strange proposition, the one who will organise this out there event? Bill Murray of course, as local funeral home owner Frank Quinn. When you get to see Murray in a role like this, you really wish he would answer more of those calls on his voice mailbox. Quinn could easily have been a forgettable or unsympathetic character; he's something of a shyster and definitely considers the funeral home as a business rather than an essential service. But Murray makes Quinn just a little bit different to the small town folk he's stuck with, without losing the heart of the character: he genuinely cares for his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) and there a couple of small moments, looks really, between Murray and Sissy Spacek's Mattie that tell you so much more than any speech could.

The screenplay is from Chris Provenzano (some Mad Men) and C. Gaby Mitchell and it is a well measured piece of work, with an ear for the dialogue particular to the time and place. This is quite a debut feature film from director Aaron Schneider; having previously worked as a DoP on Kiss the Girls and a few TV movies. Judging from this confident debut, not only has he got a good eye but he has a great ear and a great sense of character and place - and how those can all intertwine and the effect they can create. The final revelation is not particularly revelatory - you can guess at what it may pertain too fairly quickly, if not the specifics - but I don't believe the reveal, for the reveal's sake was the point. The point of the narrative was getting Bush into a place where he could talk about himself, what happened and why. The end may tie things up a little too neatly, especially for a character who is so un-neat, but it doesn't hurt the journey.

I seem to have an attraction to these films set in the backwoods of America (see also: Winter's Bone). Perhaps it has something to do with the rural setting? At once so strange and different to my own, New Zealand based understanding of "rural" and at the same time so very familiar, from years of exposure to American movies. It only helps when the film you're watching has such fantastic, well rounded and real characters. A cracking film to kick off the Film Society year.

1 comment:

  1. Oo - this sounds good. I've added it to my movies-I-must-see list.