I suppose Aaron Schneider knows a thing or two about how to make a cold gray stark wintry movie look even more Great Depression-y: washing out the colors, tweeding everyone up, getting lots of sad browns and golds on the screen. Schneider’s a cinematographer, see, making his feature debut as a director with Get Low (though did win an Oscar for his 2003 just-short-of-feature-length short “Two Soldiers”), and if there’s something Get Low has in spades, it’s atmosphere: the film is visually cold and spare, and agreeably so, while at the same time it’s emotionally warm and expressive.
The look comes via cinematographer David Boyd, who also shot the Depression-set Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, as well as Joss Whedon’s short-lived TV series Firefly, which had a similar palette. The story comes via screenwriters Chris Provenzano (TV’s Mad Men), C. Gaby Mitchell (Blood Diamond), and Scott Seeke, vaguely inspired by the true fact of a Tenneessee man who, in 1938, decided to throw himself his own funeral, so he could enjoy it while he was still alive.
The rest of the details of the story here of the fictional Felix Bush, beyond the throwing of his own funeral, are invented, and there’s where Get Low stumbles, just a little. There’s something a little too spare, a little too frugal in how the film doles out its tale of a hermit feller — played with the lovely restrained tension Robert Duvall (The Road, Four Christmases) typically brings to a character — who has been living out in the back of beyond for 40 years. He’s the kind of scary hermit about whom women say things like, “I heard all sorts of awful stories about him when I was a kid,” and about whom men say they don’t want him near their women and children. The awful things Felix is purported to have done are never mentioned, not even alluded to, yet they must be quite desperate indeed to provoke such reactions.
It’s almost as if there are two separate, diametrically opposed stories here: that of the town and the folk who ungenerously villify a strange old man (even though they mostly seem like decent people otherwise), and that of the strange old man and what brought him to hermitify himself. And though these would seem to be complementary stories, they never quite mesh, either in plot or tone. Felix’s desire to invite entire counties to his funeral so he can hear the tales they have to tell about him becomes particularly mysterious when, as Felix’s past begins to become clear to us — it seems to have something to do with a long-gone romance with Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek: Four Christmases, An American Haunting), who’d moved away but now, widowed, has returned home — we discover (no spoilers!) that his past is a secret: no one can have known why Felix has been punishing himself all these years.
Felix’s tale is woefully tragic — his scoffing about how he don’t need to ask Jesus for forgiveness, since Felix never did nothing to him strikes me as one of the more forlornly sad things I’ve ever heard from a character who appears to otherwise value the notion of a forgiving Jesus. But it’s just a tad uncomfortably at odds with the town side of the story, represented mostly by funeral home director Frank Quinn and his junior partner, Buddy. Bill Murray (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Limited) deadpans some sharply, deviously funny lines as a man fighting his own demons, all on his own among the cast successfully juggling the bitter and sweet here. (Perhaps Murray was meant to be a fulcrum on which to balance the two sides of the story? If so, it’s an admirable attempt on Schneider’s part, even if it doesn’t quite work.) The real find of the film is, however, Lucas Black (Legion, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift): he’s not an actor I’ve been impressed with previously, but he steals the film as the kind, honest Buddy, a gentle counterpoint to both Duvall’s irascibilty and Murray’s acerbicness.
Still, though the parts may not come together as they should, there’s something satisfying, in the end, about Get Low’s individual parts, even separately. The film takes risks with itself, and almost makes it work, and that is infinitely more rewarding than a film that walks a well-trodden path right down the middle.