In 2009, Robert Duvall was in three films. In the first, The Road, Duvall plays a grizzled blind man who offers Viggo Mortenson’s Man and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Boy grim and unhappy advice in a grim and unhappy time. In the third, Crazy Heart, Duvall plays a grizzled bartender who offers Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake positive advice in a rather more manageable time. In the second (and the last to reach New Zealand), Get Low, he plays Felix Bush, a grizzled old hermit who’s less likely to offer anyone advice and more likely to offer them a mouth full of buckshot instead. Sporting a wiry beard of considerable mass, Duvall cuts a cranky swath through a small town in 1930s America, seeking a funeral while he’s still alive as a final, superficially idiosyncratic gesture to the world that’s come to mention his name with the words “They say…” pinned on the front.
If it sounds like Felix is skirting dangerously close to cliché territory, don’t worry—he is. Felix is the ultimate Boo Radley, an entire village’s bogeyman with the attitude to match. For the first half-hour of the film, Felix greets people with shotguns and throws dirty wads of cash at anyone who’ll give him that funeral. He’s a misunderstood man with no manners and a sense that every wrong deserves brutal retribution, but everyone’s all too happy to ignore the absolute nature of that final part if it’s willing to get them a bit of dough (indeed, big city huckster-turned-funeral vendor Frank (Bill Murray) seems baffled by the idea that Felix has personal issues that have caused his exile).
However, it’s this final element of Felix’s character that proves most conclusive. As the film progresses, it slowly develops from a dramedy with a light touch (and a killer Bill Murray performance) into something far more poignant and essential. The clichés that director Schneider plays for laughs become the springboards into examinations of how we deal with our own shortcomings and moral transgressions. It may have a certain dry charisma about it, but Get Low is foremost a film about how we punish ourselves, and with a Duvall performance and Depression-era aesthetic that encapsulate Felix’s backwoods isolation and extend it to the entire town, it’s unexpectedly good at that.