Friday, August 27, 2010

High on 'Get Low'

Get Low (2010) • View trailer for Get Low
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and too harshly, for brief profanity, fleeting violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.27.10
Buy DVD: Get Low • Buy Music CD: Get Low

On June 26, 1938, shortly before the Great Depression yielded to the WWII years, a Tennessee hermit named Felix "Bush" Breazeale  having lived for years with no company but his beloved mule  threw himself a "funeral party" that lured upwards of 12,000 'mourners' from at least 14 different states. 

The event probably wouldn't draw more than raised eyebrows today, but at that more innocent time it was regarded as highly eccentric; the 'service' was covered by Life magazine and reporters from numerous papers. 
In an effort to make Felix Breazeale (Robert Duvall, seated) more
presentable, funeral home owner Frank Quinn (Bill Murray, right) and
his assistant, Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), take the grizzled hermit
to a barber, and then to a clothing store. Felix is perfectly content to
go along with all this, since Frank is picking up the tab.

"I just wanted to hear," Breazeale took the Roane County Banner, "what the preacher had to say about me while I am alive." 

Breazeale enjoyed his newfound celebrity for another five years before dying on Feb. 9, 1943, this time being laid to rest during an intimate church service that drew few onlookers on a cold winter's day. 

Nobody really knows what prompted his desire for that first mammoth affair; it may have been just a whim. 

Questions that tantalizing were made to be answered by imaginative writers. 

Chris Provenzano, a veteran scripter of provocative TV shows such as Mad Men and Justified, shaped his take on Breazeale's saga with co-writer Scott Seeke; Provenzano then fine-tuned the subsequent script with C. Gaby Mitchell. The result is Get Low, an engaging little character drama deftly directed by Aaron Schneider, which gives memorably quirky roles to Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, with solid support from Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black and Bill Cobbs. 

The film capably lives up to the iconic line in 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." 

Duvall has no shortage of unusual character parts in his past; he thrives on them. But familiarity certainly doesn't breed contempt, as Duvall's never quite the same way twice. His take on Breazeale is deceptive: The mostly silent backwoods man who initially appears unsophisticated proves to be shrewd, cunning and intelligent. 
As funeral home owner Frank Quinn (Murray) eventually observes to his assistant, Buddy Robinson (Black), Breazeale has an uncanny knack for getting folks to do precisely what he wants ... without appearing to have asked or forced the issue. 

Rarely have I so enjoyed watching the actual human being emerge from so many layers of careful concealment. 

In order for this narrative to be compelling, Breazeale can't merely be idiosyncratic; his isolation and sudden desire for public acknowledge must spring from A Deep, Dark Secret. We do eventually get that answer, and while not entirely anticlimactic  Duvall sells this scene just as persuasively as all others  the destination doesn't quite live up to the journey. 

The mystery provides the film's forward momentum, but the primary delight springs from spending time with these characters. 

Breazeale, shunned and regarded with suspicion in the small town closest to his isolated home in Roane County, suddenly decides that he wants to hear what folks truly think of him. Such candor generally emerges only at a funeral, but of course the deceased isn't in a position to hear all the good stuff. (At least, not in a fashion we're aware of.) 

Breazeale therefore decides to buy himself a funeral  ahead of time  which brings him to the attention of Quinn, an affably morose fellow on the verge of financial ruin, because folks in Roane County aren't dying quickly enough. 

Murray very nearly steals the film: no small feat, considering Duvall's own skills as the center of attention. Murray's dry, deadpan delivery is perfect for Quinn, whose mordant observations serve as welcome comic relief. 

Quinn probably isn't entirely dishonest, but he's certainly opportunistic; one imagines that caskets are merely the most recent in a long line of products ranging from snake oil to used cars. Indeed, Murray's funniest line involves Quinn's pride over having sold '26 of the ugliest cars in the middle of December' when he lived in Chicago, a sentiment laced with a few additional details not quite fit to be reproduced in a family newspaper. 

Buddy, in great contrast, is stalwart and honest as the day is long: recently married to a good woman (Lori Beth Edgeman) and a devoted father to their infant child. 

"For everybody like me," Breazeale remarks at one point, having grown quite fond of Buddy, "I guess there's somebody like you." 

It's the highest of compliments, although Black takes a perfectly timed beat before Buddy comprehends this. 

Schneider is a patient director; he's in no great hurry to cut to the core of what eats at Breazeale. Schneider obviously believes we should be content to merely eavesdrop on these people, and gauge for ourselves the various relationship dynamics, whether new or old. 

It's a brave artistic choice at a time when too many Hollywood movies front-load and spoon-feed expository details. Frankly, it's refreshing to sit back and simply watch these folks be. 

Plenty of history clearly exists between Breazeale and the only two people he regards as friends: the Rev. Charlie Jackson (Cobbs) and the widowed Mattie Darrow (Spacek). 

"We had a go," Breazeale admits, when Buddy questions the older man's ties to Mattie. That simple response covers a wealth of territory, as does the penetrating look in Spacek's eyes, when she regards Felix with an unsettling mix of affection and disapproval. 

Schneider also understands the precise application of music and sound, starting with a score that blends Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's melancholy main themes with Jerry Douglas' soulful guitar work and an impeccably placed Alison Krause song, "Lay My Burden Down." 

In context, the latter has an emotional wallop akin to the impact of "Danny Boy," the first time one really listens to all the lyrics. 

But the soundtrack isn't merely about music; it's also about silence. Schneider brings down ambient sounds at key moments, leaving us to draw a scene's dramatic impact solely from the way these people stand and look at each other. Their body language speaks volumes, in turn heightened even further by the absence of background noise. 

Cinematographer David Boyd captures the dusty, often dark  but not dreary  surroundings that inform Breazeale's day-to-day existence ... or, more accurately, the life he led before deciding to become a more public figure. The backwoods setting is beautifully realized, with Georgia standing in for Tennessee: heavily forested lands and a small town (Crawfordville, population 572) that probably haven't changed much since the Great Depression. 

It has been a good season for sensitive, stereotype-shattering backwoods dramas, with this film following closely on the heels of Winter's Bone. That film is much more serious and menacing; this one is alternately amusing and melancholy (never quite reaching depressing, thankfully). 

Both films are written thoughtfully and intelligently, offering characters brought to compelling life by actors who understand how to inhabit roles laden with so many fascinating layers. 

So much for the fiction. With respect to the fact, wouldn't it have been something, back in the day, to have watched the real Felix Breazeale's unconventional coming-out party? 

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