If there’s something Get Low has in spades, it’s atmosphere: The film is visually cold and spare, and agreeably so, while at the same time it’s emotionally warm and expressive.
The look comes via cinematographer David Boyd. The story comes via screenwriters Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell and Scott Seeke, vaguely inspired by the true story of a Tennessee man who, in 1938, decided to throw himself his own funeral so he could enjoy it while he still drew breath.
The rest of the details are invented out of whole cloth, and they’re where Get Low stumbles.
There’s something a little too spare, a little too frugal in how the film doles out its tale of a hermit feller living in the wilderness for 40 years. He’s the kind of scary hermit about whom women say things like, “I heard all sorts of awful stories about him when I was a kid.” The awful things Felix is purported to have done are never mentioned, yet they must be quite desperate indeed to provoke such reactions.
It’s almost as if there are two diametrically opposed stories here: the townfolk who vilify a strange old man (even though they mostly seem like decent people otherwise), and the strange old man himself. And though these would seem to be complementary stories, they never quite mesh, either in plot or tone. Felix’s desire to invite entire counties to his funeral becomes particularly mysterious when, as Felix’s past begins to become clear to us, we discover (no spoilers!) that his past is a secret: No one can have known why Felix has been punishing himself all these years.
Felix’s tale is woefully tragic — his scoffing about how he don’t need to ask Jesus for forgiveness since Felix never did anything to him strikes me as one of the more forlorn things I’ve ever heard from a character who truly believes in a forgiving Jesus. But it’s just a tad at odds with the town side of the story, represented mostly by funeral home director Frank Quinn and his junior partner, Buddy. As Quinn, Bill Murray deadpans some sharply, deviously funny lines as a man fighting his own demons — juggling the bitter and sweet.
The real find of the film is, however, Lucas Black (Legion). He’s not an actor I’ve been impressed with previously, but he steals the film as the kind, honest Buddy.
Still, though the parts may not come together as they should, there’s something satisfying, in the end, about Get Low’s individual parts. The film takes risks and almost makes them work, and that is infinitely more rewarding than a film that walks a well-trodden path right down the middle.