Get Low: Schneider’s Feature Debut, Starring Robert Duvall

Aaron Schneider makes a promising feature directing debut in “Get Low,” a uniquely American folktale that’s grounded in some fact, featuring Robert Duvall in one of his strongest performances in years.
World premiering at the 2009 Toronto Film Fest, “Get Low” then played successfully in major other film festivals, such as Sundance, South by Southwest, and Tribeca. Sony Classics will release the rural drama on July 30, as counter-programming to the summer’s effects-driven blockbusters
Watching Duvall in this picture brought vivid memories of his very first performance, almost 40 years ago, as Boo in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Since then, he has distinguished himself in dozens of pictures, including his Oscar-winning role in “Tender Mercies,” (1983) and Oscar-nominated “The Apostle” (1997), in which has given quietly absorbing, utterly compelling performances.
In this Southern folktale, co-written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, Duvall plays the backwoods recluse Felix Bush as a man whose very name and appearance have been terrifying townsfolk for decades. Based in truth, Duvall’s character is inspired by Felix “Bush” Breazeale, who lived in Kingston, Tennessee in the 1930s. Born into a prominent Southern family, he was renown for his wild, offbeat ways. Felix dwelled in the deep woods alone, refusing any company save for his beloved mule. Then, suddenly, he decided that he would like to know in advance what people were going to say about him after he was gone. This curiosity led to a wildly bizarre idea for a “living funeral,” which soon commanded national attention.
In this fictionalized account of both man and his surrounding context, Felix is an outsider whose existence has been veiled in mystery and myth. He is rumored to have done unspeakable and despicable things, like killing in cold blood, communicating with the Devil, exercizing strange powers.  In short, he represents bad news, the kind of man to be avoided like the plague.
One bright day, Felix rides to town with a shotgun and some cash in his hands, aiming to buy a funeral. What he has in his perverse mind is a special, “living” funeral, in which any person who has ever heard a story about him will come and tell it in public.
Sensing a big payday in the offing, the shrewd, fast-talking funeral home owner Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) enlists his young apprentice, Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), to win over Felix’s business. Buddy is no stranger to Felix’s dark reputation, but what he discovers is that behind Felix’s surreal plan lies a real, long-held secret.
The mystery involves the widow Maddie Darrow (Sissy Spacek, also in top form), his former lover and the only person in town who ever got close to Felix, and the Illinois preacher Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), who refuses to speak at his former friend’s funeral.
Erratic and unpredictable, Felix surprises all around him when, on the big day, he declares that he is in no mood to listen to other people spinning fake and fictitious anecdotes about him. Instead, he’s determined to do all the talking, telling once and for all the reasons why he has been hiding out in the woods.
In their well-written scenario, scribes Chris Provenzano (“Mad Men”) and C. Gaby Mitchell (“Blood Diamond”) show attention to period detail, and for the most part, the dialogue sounds authentic.
Schneider, who made strong impression with his Oscar-winning short, “Two Soldiers,” has coaxed superb performances from his entire ensemble, but he shows some problems with pacing (especially in the first reels) and with crafting the text into a more dramatically shapely form.
But the main reason to see “Get Low,” which is old-fashioned in both the positive and negative senses of the term is the lead turn by Duvall, which should be remembered come awards season. It’s a credit to the magnitude of Duvall’s talent that, though he’s playing a larger-than-life persona, he doesn’t go overboard and doesn’t over-dramatize.
The secrets to Duvall’s longevity as an actor has been his impressive range and the fact that he has seldom overacted. In both major and supporting roles, he has accommodated himself to the specific demands of the part at hand.
In this picture, transforming himself physically and mentally, Duvall gives a coherent, compelling performance in a tough role, an eccentric recluse. I particularly like the scene in which Felix tells the town’s preacher that it’s time to “get low.” After placing himself in a self-imposed exile for four decades, sensing that his end is near, he decides to leave his cabin in the woods (sort of a comfy prison) and rejoins civilizations and its discontents.