Robert Duvall began his career nearly 50 years ago playing a widely feared, quasi-legendary hermit—To Kill a Mockingbird’s Boo Radley—and now he seems prepared to end his career the very same way. Get Low won’t likely be Duvall’s final film, but it functions nonetheless as a sort of crusty valediction, offering one of Hollywood’s finest elder statesmen an opportunity to celebrate the cantankerous, weirdly principled hardass figure that he more or less invented within a context expressly designed to conflate actor and character. It’s a neat trick.
Felix Bush, the movie’s protagonist, is a bona fide, cabin-in-the-woods hermit, known for his wild beard, fearsome manner and ever-present shotgun. Concerned that he won’t be mourned when he dies, he treks into town one day and demands that the local mortician (Bill Murray) arrange his funeral—now, immediately, while he’s still alive. Unlike that rascal Tom Sawyer, however, Felix doesn’t intend simply to eavesdrop on the eulogy. He has a few things to get off his chest, including the weighty secret that drove him into seclusion in the first place.
Given that the film opens with the surreal sight of a man in flames, running from a burning house, the nature of that ancient transgression isn’t much of a mystery; the script places far too much emphasis on it, making the Big Reveal a disappointing anticlimax. And while it’s always a pleasure to see Bill Murray these days, given how infrequently he works, his dryly postmodern affect doesn’t exactly scream 1938, which is when Get Low takes place. (It’s very loosely based on a real incident, though the tragic back story was invented from whole cloth.) Still, the movie is Duvall’s showcase, and first-time director Aaron Schneider mostly stays out of his way, letting him invest this eccentric old coot with multiple shades of bottled-up emotion. When Duvall and Sissy Spacek, as Felix’s long-ago sweetheart, square off for a memorable scene of painful contrition, the pain in their eyes ennobles the clichés they’ve been given to speak. If this is less a satisfying movie than a pre-emptive tribute, it can choke you up all the same.