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Actor's Studio

Three great veterans save a promising but wobbly director's debut.

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An actor's showcase "indie" in the mold of Crazy Heart or The Wrestler, Get Low presents the great Robert Duvall, 79, with something of a valedictory showcase — and his most significant starring role since 1997's The Apostle.

Based on a true story that took place in Roane County, Tennessee, in 1938, Get Low casts Duvall as misunderstood hermit Felix Bush (making the role something of a bookend to Duvall's screen debut, as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird), a feared old curmudgeon first seen running a little boy off his property with a shotgun and then replacing his "no trespassing" sign with a "no damn trespassing" sign.

Soon after, Bush makes his way to town with a wad of cash in pursuit of a living "funeral party" — he wants the community to gather and tell stories about him, and he wants to be there to watch. This puts Bush in a business partnership of sorts with town undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black), whose business is slow enough for them to embrace Bush's odd idea. ("It's a detail ... we can look at it," Frank says in response to Bush's request to be alive at his funeral.)

If Get Low is presented as something of a culmination for Duvall, it's a feature debut for director Aaron Schneider and screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell. The crew behind Get Low evoke the Coen Brothers in both good and bad ways. The film is handsomely photographed by television veteran David Boyd, with an opening shot — a two-story house burning in the dark distance, a man running to and past the camera — that's among the year's most memorable images. But the period design is fussed over without quite feeling authentic, and the soundtrack/score is often overbearing. The film's deadpan humor and dialogue full of at-times comically empty pablum is descended from the Coens, but so is the overall artificiality.

From a script standpoint, Get Low sets up an interesting premise that it doesn't entirely follow through on — the party where townsfolk are encouraged to sound off on the old hermit. And it foreshadows and builds up Bush's final revelation to the point that, when it finally comes, it's a little deflating. Duvall's big speech is as much actorly anticlimax as transforming moment.

Ultimately, the not inconsiderable appeal of Get Low lies in its trio of veteran actors, none of whom had worked together before. Murray is a hoot in his scene-stealing but somehow understated supporting turn, clearly enjoying himself and sinking into one-liners and comic tangents so plentiful and so restricted to his character that I suspect he must have ad-libbed a few of them. But if the first-time pairing of Murray and Duvall has gotten the most attention, it's the union of Duvall and Sissy Spacek (playing a town widow who has a mysterious past with the hermit) that is more rewarding. These two actors fit together so comfortably (there's a lovely, simple long shot scene of the two walking through the woods together, Spacek finally clutching Duvall's arm) that it's hard to believe they haven't joined up before now — to the point where I started to misremember Spacek into Tender Mercies and Lonesome Dove.

Duvall, of course, is one of the greats, from enduring supporting turns in '70s touchstones (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, MASH) to under-recognized starring roles in films such as The Apostle and A Family Thing. He's a pleasure to watch here — better than the film, sure, but essentially, along with Murray and Spacek, becoming the film.

Opening Friday, August 27th

Multiple location

Related Film

Get Low

Director: Aaron Schneider

Writer: C. Gaby Mitchell and Chris Provenzano

Cast: Bill Murray, Robert Duvall, Lucas Black, Sissy Spacek, Bill Cobbs, Shawn Knowles, Andrea Powell, Scott Cooper, Lori Beth Edgeman and Blerim Destani

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