Review: Duvall is the driving force behind ‘Get Low’
August 26, 2010
Even as he approaches 80, Robert Duvall remains a heavyweight actor. He is thick in his body, his head and his voice; his presence is still an imposing one. His appearance on screen doesn’t just call to mind a past era when he played such intimidating characters as Bull Meechum in “The Great Santini” and Lieutenant Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now.” We also still see in Duvall the guy who put the cocky muscle into Bull and Kilgore. He still seems like he could kick your ass, and wouldn’t mind proving it.
On occasion, as he has crept into older age, Duvall has been used in comedic and lightweight movies, and for the most part it just doesn’t work. He’s not built for lightweight tones.
What has made Duvall nearly as memorable as any American film actor is what has been behind and underneath the muscular exterior. There is always another layer that is softer, or funnier, or more vulnerable. Kilgore had that comically maniacal edge. The consigliere Tom Hagen, from the “Godfather” movies, was memorably pushed to the margins of the Corleone family because he wasn’t Sicilian – code for being weak. It was clear that Bull Meechum’s bullying hid a bundle of insecurities, and the hard-luck, hard-living country singer Mac Sledge, from “Tender Mercies” – for which Duvall won his Oscar – wore those insecurities on the surface.
Duvall brings that whole bag of skills and screen history to Felix Bush, the backwoods loner in 1930s Tennessee in “Get Low.” Bush has been a menace to the village he lives on the edge of; everyone, it seems, has a story about Old Man Bush having threatened, or actually harmed, someone they knew. Regardless of how much of it is true, Bush cultivates the image, wearing a long beard and scowl that, as much as his reputation, are intended to keep the world at a distance.
But Bush is getting frail, and as he faces his demise, there is a burden he wants to lay down before he goes. He has been too remote from society for too long to know how to come out and say it, so with the help of a money-hungry undertaker (Bill Murray, in a performance just short of wonderful) and the undertaker’s compassionate, young assistant (Lucas Black, in a portrayal that gets richer as the film moves along), Bush concocts the idea of his own fake funeral, which he will attend. The concept is half-baked, as all the participants seem to know, but the process of staging the funeral, backing away from it, and ultimately discovering just what this staged event was meant to accomplish, allows the playful trickster inside Bush to emerge, and gives “Get Low” its vaguely comic veneer.
What Bush needs to get off his chest, director Aaron Schneider and writer Chris Provenzano keep close to their own chest. Bush takes a small-scale odyssey that touches on religion (as he catches up with his old pal, a black minister), romance (as he frolics care-free through the woods with an old flame, played by Sissy Spacek) and his own past.
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The dark secret that has been locked away is revealed all at once. Whether this works to redeem what has been a slow, shadowy story up till then depends entirely on the speech Bush delivers – and on the effectiveness of Duvall, as an actor and icon. For the climactic minutes, the movie is given over entirely to Duvall, in an unwavering close-up that lets him speak of forgiveness, conscience, lust and violence.
The scene probably doesn’t quite do everything it is asked to. But for fans of Duvall – which we all should be by now – it is required viewing.