How Low Can You Go?

An unscrupulous mortician bemoans the country’s low death rate. A brooding hermit with a wad of cash and a long shadow knocks on his door with a strange request. A town watches with bated breath as the whole ludicrous carnival unfolds.  Aaron Schneider’s Get Low is a “true story” concerning the preemptive funeral plans of one Felix Bush, a card-carrying Southern recluse with required mule, and shotgun.

Sounds weird and/or boring? Uh, no.

In Schneider’s hands, what could have been a maudlin tale of a grumpy curmudgeon coming to grips with his own mortality is transformed into a fable on the meaning of sorrow, penance, and love’s grey areas. With the help of top caliber talents Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, and Robert Duvall, Get Low flows with deliberate pacing and never hurries to expose the secrets hidden behind Duvall’s brooding eyes.  Duvall seems to have acquired a monopoly on the role of the grizzled Southerner; his performance as the enigmatic, eccentric Bush will only further solidify his position at the top of the pyramid. Now advanced in years, Duvall has lost all the surplus fleshin his face and resembling a bird of prey more than anything, he demonstrates once again how deft he can be ratcheting up the tension with a mere hooded glance. Behind Bush’s practiced eccentricities lurks a very real macabre malaise; that Duvall so effortlessly propels the film along with mere hints is testament to his serious acting chops.

Not that the movie rests on Duvall’s shoulders alone. Bouncing off the straight man role of partner Lucas Black, Bill Murray’s turn as a sardonic, embittered undertaker makes the film worth watching. “One thing about Chicago,” he deadpans glumly, “people knew how to die.” It should surprise no one that Bill Murray is a man who can make sitting in an upturned chair look simultaneously elegant and hilarious.  Here he never seems to miss a beat.  The quiet pathos underlining Murray’s mordant wit is what separates the character from the caricature he could have been.  He is as spare with a confession as with a punch line, an economy of style that has made him Wes Anderson’s favorite muse.

The film is by turns witty, menacing, and ultimately sentimental. Much like its enigmatic protagonist, Get Low defies easy classification; it could pass for a period piece, black comedy, a small town drama, and a psychological thriller. Unfortunately, while proof of Schneider’s technical proficiency, such extreme variety of tone dilutes rather than strengthens the substance of the film itself. While some movies like Fargo or Pulp Fiction can thrive at the intersections of seemingly incongruous genres (think Steve Buscemi and the wood chipper: kind of funny, kind of horrifying), those films succeed by crafting a distinct, cohesive atmosphere that shows the genres are blended, instead of juxtaposed.  Get Low comes off as amorphous and frankly, bloodless. Not to say that the movie isn’t enjoyable- the script is crisp enough, the cast talented enough- you’ll just never give it a second thought once you leave the theater. And if Bill Murray with a pencil mustache can’t make this film worth remembering, you know there’s an issue.

Get Low is currently playing at the Claremont 5 in the Village.