Monday, January 24, 2011

REVIEW: Get Low (2009)

Original theatrical poster.
As the original tagline states, “Every secret dies somewhere.” Such is the reality for the film which it represents, Get Low (2009). With the acquisition of the film by Sony Pictures Classics, the tagline was changed to the more optimistic, “A True Tall Tale,” re-directing the summation of the film from the story it is telling to the eccentricities of the main character. Once again marketing departments mislead viewers to believe they are going to see a film that only exists in the spotlight they are creating. Capitalizing on the successful track records of its impressive cast, which includes Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and Lucas Black, the film is sold on the strength and expectations audiences have of its principal stars. Their names alone should be enough to put asses in the seats no matter what the plot contains. However, the serious, solemn, soul-searching tragedy that is Get Low comes off more as a lighthearted, quirky Dramedy when presented to audiences.

The story follows Felix Bush (Duvall), a prisoner of his past, as he pleads for the parole of his soul. Realizing that he is rapidly approaching the end of his life, Bush breaks his vow of isolation in an attempt to put the rumors of his life to rest. After turning away from the church, Bush is solicited by Buddy (Black) and his employer, Frank Quinn (Murray), who operate the local funeral home. Together the three of them work to fulfill Bush’s final request, to have a “living” funeral during which people can share the stories they’ve heard about Bush through his forty years in isolation. As he slowly comes out of his shell, Bush searches for someone to speak on his behalf, fearing that he won’t have the strength to set the record straight when the time comes.

Although living funerals are not all that uncommon in today’s society, during the unspecified era in which Get Low takes place (1920’s – early 1930’s) they were practically unheard of, making this event something of a spectacle. That element of the story is actually based on a true event that occurred in 1938. A man named Felix Breazeale, who was the inspiration for Duvall’s character, lived a secluded life in the forests of Tennessee and one day decided to hold a living funeral to be able to hear what his community and friends thought and remember about his life. Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell wrote the screenplay based on a story by Provenzano and Scott Seeke. The living funeral element is really just a catalyst to get to the real heart of the story, which is the unveiling of why Bush had taken on the life of a hermit for forty years. Unfortunately, anyone familiar with story structure will be able to see the ending and Bush’s reasons coming from the beginning.

Aaron Schneider, making his feature directorial debut, also edited the film. After a shaky start, literally, with some poorly assembled handheld scenes the film does stabilize and finds its rhythm. The two scenes in question occur within the first ten minutes of the film and comprise most of the physical action in the piece. Schneider uses quick cuts, combined with the handheld camera to try and evoke a sense of frantic urgency, but only succeeds in confusing the viewer as to what they are actually witnessing. The third most important element in editing, next to the rhythm and pacing, is consistency, which these sequences don’t adhere to in this low tempo film. There is also a sense that Schneider is trying too hard to establish Duvall’s character as an outsider within the first ten minutes of the film. He exerts a lot of effort on creating conflict for this quiet, somber character that has more or less lived an uneventful life up to that point. If actions truly do speak louder than words then Bush is screaming, at the top of his lungs, for the first twelve minutes of the film. It isn’t until Bill Murray’s character, Quinn, comes into the film that the pacing begins to establish itself and the story takes focus. Quinn’s character establishes an anchor for the audience to cling to while they figure out Bush. His dynamic background as a used car salesman turned funeral director makes him charismatic and likable almost instantly.

Sony Classics Pictures distribution poster.
If the film has one, identifiable strength, it is the cast. From start to finish, Get Low is the Duvall show, but his performance is only as good as the actors he plays against. Each of the supporting characters brings something to the scene that for one reason or another is vacant in Bush. Their performances provide a complete representation of society in the story. The character of Quinn provides a sense of real world affairs, executed to perfection by Bill Murray. Buddy Robinson, played by Lucas Black, portrays an idealistic sense of moral values. Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) further supports the moral values held by Buddy, but with a spiritual edge and Sissy Spacek brings it all together as the heart of the film. Her role is key in the redemption and forgiveness that Bush seeks by conducting his venture.

All things considered, Get Low is a decent film. The story is intriguing but suffers from a predicable structure and an inexperienced filmmaker. Duvall’s performance comes across as sincere and his supporting cast gives the film a genuine sense of humanity. The other production elements such as the cinematography, production design, and music appear to fall together seamlessly. The film will be released on DVD and Blu Ray on Tuesday, February 22, 2011. 

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