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FILM REVIEW: Quiet tale of forgiveness will reach wide audience Bill Fentum, Aug 13, 2010
SONY PICTURES CLASSICS PHOTO
Robert Duvall and Lucas Black star in “Get Low,” a film based on the true story of an unusual funeral in 1938.
By Bill Fentum Associate Editor
Get Low Rated PG-13 for some thematic material and brief violent content
Get Low tells a mostly true story that one might easily mistake for fiction: In 1938, a crowd of thousands went to a funeral for Felix “Bush” Breazeale of Roane County, Tenn.—while he was still alive and well.
Wire services and magazines covered the event, and before all the hoopla ended the rustic Breazeale, 74, was even flown to New York for a national radio interview. When a friend later asked how he had enjoyed the trip, he said, “Oh, just fine. . . . But to be honest about it, their victuals wasn’t worth a dern.”
Breazeale died five years later and was quietly laid to rest in a much smaller second funeral. Of course, his fame was eventually forgotten.
But now he’s on the big screen, brought to life in a glowing performance by veteran star Robert Duvall. Renamed “Felix Bush” for short, the character in the film isn’t just an eccentric loner but a man plagued by sins of the past and in need of redemption.
At first, Felix’s history is unclear to us. We only know that he suffers terrible nightmares about a fire, and that he seems to treasure a faded photograph of a lovely, unknown woman. He’s also a hermit, vowing to shoot any trespasser around his isolated cabin.
Then news of an old friend’s passing gets him thinking about mortality. But to get down to business (or “get low”) and plan a funeral, he’ll need the help of other people.
Can’t buy grace
A pastor who hardly knows Felix asks, “Have you made your peace with God?” His muttered answer—“I’ve paid”—suggests he doesn’t believe in God’s forgiving grace or doesn’t feel he deserves it. In any case, the man coldly refuses to preach a eulogy for him, alive or dead.
But wait. Local funeral director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) is desperate for business in the waning days of the Great Depression, and isn’t about to turn down the huge roll of cash Felix offers as payment for a “funeral party.”
So they get ready for the big day. Felix goes to a barber to shear away his long hair and beard, and gets measured for a fancy suit—possibly the first one he’s ever worn. A gifted carpenter, he actually builds a casket for himself that at this funeral will serve only as a symbol of the inevitable.
Meanwhile, Quinn sends out a promotional flyer, and at Felix’s bequest asks everyone with a tale about his legendary meanness to show up and tell it to the crowd. It’s starting to sound more like a carnival act than a day of remembrance.
Quinn’s young assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) is bothered by that. In a sense he’s the moral conscience of Get Low. He worries that the funeral will only humiliate Felix and push him further out of the community.
Felix, though, insists they go through with it. Why? We slowly come to see he has a story of his own to tell, one that he’s kept private for half his lifetime.
Afraid to confess
Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), a former girlfriend who recently moved back to town, learns it has something to do with the lady in the old photo—who we learn is her late sister, Mary Lee. But Mattie knows none of the details, and her suspicions threaten her friendship with Felix.
The Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), a black minister in nearby Illinois, apparently does know the secret. Felix confessed to him decades ago, and to show gratitude for a listening ear (or to do penance, perhaps?), he then built a sanctuary for Jackson’s church.
But when Felix shows up begging Jackson to speak for him at the funeral, the old preacher refuses. No one else, he says, can confess the sin and ask forgiveness from God and from the community; Felix must take that step himself.
The story leads to a moment of revelation, grace and honest emotion, rendered by Mr. Duvall with the same spirit of truth he brought earlier to The Apostle and his Oscar-winning turn in Tender Mercies.
The supporting cast is just as wonderful, with Mr. Murray in a role that allows for his deadpan humor but adds a gentle touch we haven’t always seen; put him beside Mr. Duvall, and their chemistry adds enough levity to balance the overall mood. And Ms. Spacek has her best role in years, portraying Mattie with warmth and unpretentious charm.
Don’t be surprised if Get Low sticks around through the fall, drawing a diverse range of fans. Despite some raw but realistic language in a few spots, it’s a Christian film that can reach everyone—churchgoers or not.