I think we can all agree that the ideal way to walk into most films is knowing as little about what you are about to witness as possible.
This was the case when I was invited to a screening of a film that came highly recommended to me by many, but I knew next to nothing about. Sure, I knew that the film starred the legendary Robert Duvall, the enduringly wonderful Sissy Spacek, and the transformative funnyman Bill Murray. But aside from that I really had no idea what Get Low was about.
My old friend, the late great author Dick Yates used to say, and I must admit I quote him often, “Make them laugh, make them cry – make them wait.”
Those words sum up the tantalizing structure and arc of Get Low.
My brief review of Get Low (brief because I believe this is a film about revelation so the less you know the better) is that first time director Aaron Schneider – altho he won an Oscar along with Andrew J. Sachs for their short film Two Soldiers (2003) – struck gold when he was able to talk the veteran screen actor into taking this haunting role on, and then surrounded himself with outstanding artists to bring it to robust life.
The cinematography is rich and textured (David Boyd), the music is effective and fits the piece and the period (Jan A.P. Kaczamarek), the costumes are perfect (Julie Weiss), and the supporting cast is inspired and generous.
Alabama born Lucas Black, whom Duvall worked with on Sling Blade (1996), and was also so good in Friday Night Lights (2004), is excellent as the mortuary apprentice whose first sales assignment is to knock on the door of Duvall’s notorious hermit ‘Felix Bush.’ Set in the 1930s, everyone in their small Tennessee town has a tall tale to tell about the wild and violent ‘Felix Bush,’ but it is Black’s ‘Buddy’ who draws him out and befriends him, leading him on his path to redemption.
‘Buddy’ works for mortuary owner ‘Frank Quinn’ (Murray), whose aim is not so much to befriend the urban legend but fleece him. And who can blame him? Times are tough in the mortuary business. “People are dropping dead all over the country. Just not here.” Delivered as only Bill Murray can.
I better stop before I give you too much. It’s a heartbreaking film that deals with extremely tough subjects. Like accountability. And forgiveness. And redemption. And a film that is even bold enough to ask the profound question: “Do we really pick who we fall in love with?”
Sitting in a crowded, quiet theatre alongside mostly fellow actors and industry colleagues, all staying in their seats to listen to an artist who is willing to share his stories and even let us inside his acting process, was an extraordinary way to begin the new year for your trusty reviewer.
The actor spoke free and easy about working with Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather I & II (1972, 74) and Apocalypse Now (1979); how amazing it was to watch Brando at work, and to be part of something so culturally significant. His favorite role? Not even close. ‘Gus McCrae’ from the epic 1989 western mini-series Lonesome Dove.
“I felt when I finished Lonesome Dove I could retire,” said Duvall to the audience at the Harmony Theatre on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. “Give the Brits ‘King Lear’ or ‘Hamlet.’ I’ll take ‘Gus McCrae.”
He says it is the role people most associate him with when he’s out mingling in society – feeling particularly at home and welcome in the Lone Star state of Texas.
About his fame: “It’s enough to be flattering, but not enough to be a nuisance.”
When asked about his experience on Get Low, the 80-year-old actor lit up with a youthful enthusiasm at the joy he gets from working on smaller independent films (Get Low budget $7.5m, shot in 26 days). “There are so many good young actors and directors working in the smaller films – the medium budget films. All around the world,” he said. “And I can learn from them as much as they can learn from me. Get Low is a truly Southern tale, actually reminded me a lot of the work I did with Horton Foote. Would have been a different film if one of the big studios did it.”
One actor in the audience asked Duvall about his remarkable monologue that comes in the film’s third act – and to all of our delight, the actor let us in to his process. And it was pure gold.
“I like to sit with it,” he said. “I was in South America, so beautiful, sitting on the patio staring out at the Andes Mountains and just thinking about the character – and the words. Sitting with it. Just sitting with it. None of it’s that hard if you come in prepared and leave yourself alone.”
Then: “You can’t get too caught up in the result. Just let the process take you. Because I thought so much about it. Even when it was over, it was more like a play. I would recite the lines two and three weeks after the movie was over – to myself. The way you do a theatre piece. Because it meant so much to me – I just let it become personalized in a very off-hand way. To let it just be there. So when I went to do it it would just come forth.”
They got the masterful monologue in just one take. “Why do more when you know you got it.” Big applause.
When asked about the difference between film and theatre he quipped “Well, in theatre you just speak up more.”
Then the evening came to a close, and just as we did when Robert Duvall entered, we stood as he exited.
Robert Duvall is a national treasure. He spoke early and often throughout the exchange about his many collaborations with the late Horton Foote, who wrote the adapted screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which brought Duvall’s first film role, ‘Boo Radley.’ Foote also wrote the original screenplay for the film that earned Duvall his only Oscar, Tender Mercies (1983). Duvall has been nominated five other times for Oscars. Get Low will most surely be his seventh.