Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek together on screen may be enticement enough to see “Get Low,”  the new indie film from director Aaron Schneider. But the film is also worth catching because of its vital subject matter. Based on an actual event, it considers forgiveness and what you might call the “socio-linguistic” act through which it’s sought. Redemption is an all-too-common narrative device, yet this scenario probes its motivations and mechanics. While not the actor’s showcase some viewers might have hoped for, “Get Low” contemplates the moral psychology of coming clean.
Channeling a Preston Sturges comedy, a Sinclair Lewis novel and a short story by Thomas Lynch , “Get Low” was inspired by Felix “Bush” Breazeale, a Tennessee recluse who threw himself a “living funeral party” in 1938. Played by Mr. Duvall, Bush is an archetypal American figure—self-reliant, plainspoken and quick to retaliate when provoked. Initially, the backwoods loner is your average ornery hermit; as the story unfolds, however, he gains a quasi-spiritual dimension.
Bush is first spied sporting a Tolstoyan beard and mane while chasing prankster kids off the remote farm where he’s spent the last 40 years in seclusion with only his mule, Gracie, for companionship. Everyone in a four-county radius has an “awful story” to tell about him, most likely apocryphal. Then again, defend your privacy with buckshot and people will talk.
One day, after the Reverend Horton (Gerald McRaney) informs Bush that another local old-timer has passed, he travels into town and tells the minister he wants his funeral before he dies. A grimy wad of cash signals he’s ready to “get low,” meaning “get down to business” and start planning immediately. The nonplussed clergyman asks if he’s “made peace with God,” gingerly pointing out, “Forgiveness is free but you do have to ask for it.”
Frustrated by such theological rigmarole, Bush makes haste to a local mortuary owned by Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). Quinn, recently of Chicago, has a keen eye for a buck and quickly agrees to arrange this unusual service. “I want everyone to come who’s got a story to tell about me,” Bush explains. Gradually, we learn he will use the occasion to tell a story of his own.
As preparations continue, Bush becomes reacquainted with Mattie Darrow (Spacek), a widower who has moved back home. They were once an item, and she’s a link to his real reason for wanting to stage his own premature wake. Bush is not interested in offering a corrective tale or in being understood or loved. He wants to unburden himself about the incident that led to his reclusiveness. Explaining his solitary life, he tells Mattie “I didn’t want forgiveness. I wanted to be made sick from it every day of my life.” Evidently, he now desires absolution of some sort, though his intentions are difficult to discern. His skepticism toward religion suggests that he’s not primarily worried about eternal salvation. (He claims not to understand why he should ask for Christ’s forgiveness when he didn’t do anything to Him). Perhaps by hearing from those who revile him, even if only by reputation, he can continue his self-flagellation.
The only person who knows what happened is Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), an African-American minister from up North, in whom Bush confided four decades ago, after fleeing Roane County. A talented carpenter, Bush built a church for the reverend’s congregation--“the most beautiful sanctuary I have ever seen,” according to Jackson. Bush invites him to the wake and asks Jackson to speak in his stead if he’s somehow unable or unwilling.
Many open questions lead up to the ceremony, which has the look of a period revival meeting, and many are left dangling afterward. The drama dissipates because no one in attendance talks about Bush. In fact, he’s the only speaker aside from Quinn. There’s justification for this omission. Bush has encouraged his demonization by his years-long silence, and the bulk of his reputation is based on rumor and exaggeration. Early on, Rev. Horton recites his mother’s aphorism, “Gossip is the Devil’s radio.” That’s one lesson of “Get Low.” Another is that lies are the stuff of comedy, drama and tragedy precisely because they obscure the truth. Watching the struggle to set the record straight is what triggers laughter, tears and catharsis.
Bush’s short and anti-climactic speech brings a certain calm to the proceedings. But his reckoning doesn’t satisfy because it’s not clear what he’s atoning for, or why. We want to know more about what’s in Bush’s heart and how it relates to his crimes. You get the impression he’s sorrier for what he lost (spoiler alert: his one true love) than for what he did; that he’s less contrite about the other lives he damaged than about his own. Of course, it’s impossible to know with certainty. Which brings us to a likely reaction of faithful viewers: Only God can be sure. Reconciling with other people is necessary but another relationship takes precedence. It’s between God and Bush, no matter what Bush thinks.
Approached differently, self-denial can be selfish, another aspect of self-pity. Bush’s closing-off was a contraction of the psyche as much as of the soul. The need to unburden himself might therefore be the fruit of regret and heartache, rather than sincere remorse. This harsh assessment brings to mind Rev. Jackson’s caution against the tendency to assume that good and bad, right and wrong are “miles apart” instead of “tangled up with each other.” Judging another’s behavior and character should be resisted, no matter how strong our urge to think in absolutes and neglect the gray bands of human culpability.
“Get Low” might strike younger filmgoers as a bit twee for a society where seeking public forgiveness is de rigueur and readily obtained. Others might wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, Bush’s was a crime of passion, arguably one of omission more than commission. Whether Bush is seen as insufficiently sinful or as insufficiently contrite and God-fearing, the mere act of confessing, in public or private, doesn’t guarantee any meaningful absolution.
Throughout “Get Low” there’s a tension between heartland hucksterism and a more puritanical strain of American individualism. Bush is not the only one in need of healing. Indications are the world-weary Quinn also has a shady past. Bush can be viewed as a victim of passion and fate, or as a wicked criminal misanthrope, or as something in between. Namely, a maverick who finally feels compelled to admit he has violated a social (and perhaps sacred) pact and suffered mightily as a consequence. In the end, his sense of shame feels more authentic. Like “Get Low,” he’s ambitious, exacting and flawed all at once.