As mythical cinematic letdowns go, none is greater than the infamous man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. Poor Dorothy and friends. They really set themselves up for that one; building up the wizard to such great heights that crushing disappointment was all too inevitable. I don't want to strain too hard in comparing Get Low with Oz—though both are set in rural locales in the 1930s—but I kept thinking about the wizard as the inevitable letdown in Get Low drew closer and closer. At least I was prepared.
When it comes to mythical characters—whether from the Emerald City or the Tennessee backwoods—the truth behind the legend tends not to be nearly as interesting as what we want it to be. Get Low fits that model, giving us a fascinating character and an original premise and building two tense storylines. We wait for the pay-off and we wait some more, hoping there's something satisfying at the end of the (yellow-brick) road.
In Get Low, Tennessee hermit Felix Bush is already more myth than man by the time he exits the woods following a self-imposed 40-year exile. Everyone's got a story about the elderly shaggy-bearded "nutter." He killed three men in a bar fight. No, he killed four. None of the tales are very specific, and, in fact, most begin and end with serious-looking townsfolk declaring, "I've heard stories about him."
Duvall (the nearly 80-year-old actor and executive producer for this film) manages to effectively pull off the dark and charming Felix, the loner with an unknown past. By the time he rolls into town on his mule-driven wagon, it's obvious he finds some amusement at the stories that have grown during his four decades in the woods. He declares that he'd like to throw himself a living funeral party—and he wants to hear those stories before he's dead. But he also seems hell-bent on maintaining a reputation as a gruff, dangerous man of mystery. He beats up a man half his age during one of these first trips back into society, if only, it seems, to uphold his legendary status.
It's a façade that can only be maintained for so long. By the time he meets Frank Quinn, the owner of a funeral home who is willing to help Felix plan his own funeral, the armor is already cracking. Quinn—played by Bill Murray in one of his best roles in years—and his associate Buddy (Lucas Black) are desperate for business and willing to work with every one of Felix's unusual requests.
Quinn is nearly as eccentric as Felix, which may explain why he's not so intimidated by the man who scares everyone else. The funeral director helps Felix clean up in preparation for the big event, which by now is drawing interest from counties near and far. As he does, hints of Felix's dark past begin to emerge, and none of them are as dangerous as the myths would insinuate.
There's a woman involved, of course, maybe even two. Sissy Spacek plays Mattie, a love interest from long ago who may or may not be the young woman in the haunting photograph next to Felix's bed. Spacek perfects the art of looking anguished in every scene in which Felix and her have very serious conversations about the past. Prepare yourself for one vague allusion after another made by people with very stern faces.
By the time Felix's big day arrives, he's a semi-likable, well-dressed clean-shaven hermit. With the beard and gruffness go half the fun. All the big, bad stories we've been waiting to hear—true or not—are, as a result of his likeability, bound to be watered down and tinged with empathy. If the stories are even told at all.
By the time Felix takes to the stage for his big moment of catharsis, it feels as though Dr. Seuss' Grinch has discovered he has a heart. He's ready to purge his secrets for a newfound sympathetic audience. Even more disappointing is that after billing the event as a living funeral for strangers to give eulogies about our man of mystery, the event planners—or maybe Get Low director Aaron Schneider—forget that's what we came here for. An hour of tension fizzles away in moments when we realize that the only story we're going to get is from the man of honor himself.
That, on its own, could have been something of interest, but instead it becomes a self-serving grandiose moment—a scene written as much for the Academy Awards nominating committee as for a patience-strained audience. Think expository filmmaking at its worst. Duvall may indeed get his Oscar nod—Murray equally deserves one for a wonderfully subtle performance—but we're left feeling cheated. Like Felix himself, Get Low fails to live up to its own hype.
Get Low continues at the Wilma Theatre.