This might sound impossible to contemplate, but Get Low is a much better film if you leave before the shocking mystery is revealed (it's not all that shocking or mysterious) in its final 15 minutes. Till then, this beautifully acted slice of Americana has an embarrassment of performance riches to cover up the thunderously overweening direction of cinematographer-turned-director Aaron Schneider.
And at the top of those riches is Bill Murray.
Turning deadpan comedy into an effortlessly sublime art, Murray proves that he's among the half-dozen greatest character actors working in Hollywood today. On page it's doubtful that Get Low's dialogue is half as amusing as Murray makes it, filling its low-key charm with a deadpan comic grace that creates an intriguing character and elevates every scene he's in. Watching his mustachioed funeral director try to wrestle away a ball of hermit money from Robert Duvall's grizzled backwoods loner is an exercise in pure acting delight. On the one hand, you've got Duvall severely huffing and grumbling his way through a part he's been perfecting since To Kill a Mockingbird's plain-spoken Boo Radley. On the other hand, you have the bottomless irony of Murray, whose glib-tongued pragmatism and perfectly timed improvisations redefine the meaning of wry. Their too-few exchanges snap with cagey intelligence, reminding you how much a pair of great actors can bring to even the most modest of movies.
And modest is the operative word here. Duvall plays Felix Bush, a shotgun-wielding recluse in Depression-era Tennessee. With 40 years of rumors and stories about his past, Felix decides to invite everyone in the surrounding counties to his funeral. With the aid of a droll mortician (Murray) and a woman from his youth (Sissy Spacek), he organizes a one-of-kind event, drawing locals in with a raffle for his timber-rich land. The reason? Felix wants to set the record straight about his life while unburdening himself of a powerful shame.
Screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchel milk all the folksy angst they can from a tale that doesn't quite support all the fuss. An actor's showcase to be sure, their script is on sturdier ground when it lets the past remain the past and focus falls on Murray's scheming and Felix's tentative reconnection with society, in particular, his reconciliation with Sissy Spacek's Mattie Darrow. Unfortunately, their conventional story builds ungracefully toward the big reveal, the moment where Felix spills his guts and the past comes gushing out in a sanctimonious flood of overwriting and overdirecting. Duvall's Oscar-baiting monologue makes clear that it wasn't so much Felix who didn't want to reveal his secret as the writers hoping to string the audience along.
While Schneider's compassion for Get Low's small-town citizens is admirable, resisting the easy mockery that usually accompanies provincial depiction, he seems to think his film is much bigger than it is. Manipulative close-ups, a swelling orchestral soundtrack, and actorly pauses and glances are overly portentous, foreshadowing Felix's secret past with a capital P. Schneider's eye for period detail is similarly off. While the movie is gorgeously photographed, the locals seem awfully well-fed, clean-scrubbed and racially tolerant. It's a modern view of Americana that's almost cartoonish in execution — a poor fit for the violent tragedy that haunts Felix, rendering him so sad, inarticulate and despised.
When watching Get Low, it's best to focus on the trees and forget the forest. Tune out Schneider's clumsy drive toward confession, redemption and forgiveness, and instead let the film's quieter, amiable charms pull you into the lives of its well-played characters. There's an emotionally complex fire-lit dinner between Duvall and Spacek that's lovely beyond words, the sturdy support of actors Gerald McRaney, Lucas Black and Bill Cobbs, and, of course, Murray's effortlessly brilliant line readings to get lost in. But trust me, duck out before the funeral hits. The ending you imagine will be far less disappointing than what's on screen.
Showing at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.