by armond white
faking americana, get low tells the tale of a 1920s backwoods loner named bush (robert duvall) who seeks a funeral ("it's time to get low") before he dies. director aaron schneider's feature debut is so naive about small-town life and rural habits that he misses the humor in this premise. it seems stolen from either bret harte or mark twain, yet schneider has fallen for that familiar hollywood con: "based on a true story."
luckily, schneider cast actors who hold on to their sense of humor. bill murray inimitably plays the undertaker willing to give bush his request. ("hermit money, that's good!") murray, wearing a john waters mustache, authenticates the weariness and desperation of the era. he forms a solid, unsentimental relationship with his young assistant, the purely charming lucas black, whom he tells, "you'll never be good if you don't know that you are," and provides the film its best moment: a confrontation between his alcoholic irish undertaker and an elderly black preacher (bill cobb). they argue over bush's motives, about what he "will" or "can't" do. murray and cobb find the basic cultural differences of white and black perspectives on social expectation. it's a rich, deeply funny, subtly acted scene.
and then there's duvall's bush. duvall goes from wild-haired, scary hermit (as if repeating his inscrutable role in altman's the gingerbread man) to being a cagey manipulator. bush has punished himself for an indiscretion many years ago (involving sissy spacek as an old flame), but doesn't know how to purge or forgive himself publicly or privately. his funeral ruse attempts to repair the personal and community damage, but schneider's awkward plotting forgets points and turns the occasion into grandstanding vanity-which duvall takes to the bank.
duvall's final scene is an oration before the entire town and surrounding community where he explains, "good, bad, right, wrong aren't miles apart. truth is they're tangled up with each other," which also holds for this performance. duvall's great skill verges on genius; he exposes bush's inner ache, then delivers it. like vanessa redgrave's amazing summary appearance at the end of atonement, duvall achieves a recognizable, mature anguish that makes schneider's rickety contrivance seem momentarily real. still, get low is annoyingly contrived. it's got miracle-worker actors, but only a miracle-worker director could pull off this drivel.
directed by aaron schneider
runtime: 100 min.
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