With a mix of sly humor, homespun grace and affecting poignancy, “Get Low” casts a well-nigh irresistible spell while spinning a Depression-era folk tale from the Tennessee backwoods. Robert Duvall compellingly underplays the larger-than-life lead role of Felix Bush, a notorious hermit who rejoins society only to plan his own funeral party, and he’s backed by smartly cast supporting players who clearly savor the twofer of portraying vividly drawn characters opposite a consummate thesp. Appreciative reviews and savvy marketing could attract adult ticketbuyers, especially if this polished indie production emerges as a high-profile specialty release.

Loosely based on a real-life incident that has long been recounted as legend (with a few embellishments here and there), “Get Low” intros Felix as a taciturn eccentric who, for nearly 40 years, has sternly guarded his privacy while living alone in the woods. (Pic was shot on location in Georgia.) Rumors about his violent past abound, and he lends credibility to those accounts by brandishing (and occasionally firing) a shotgun when unwelcome guests ignore the sign on the road to his property: “No damn trespassing. Beware of mule.”

One fateful day, however, Felix hitches that mule to his wagon and rides into town, where he approaches the local reverend (Gerald McRaney) to “get low” — that is, get down to business — regarding plans for a memorial service. Specifically, he wants to preside at his own funeral — to hear what folks in town and from surrounding areas have to say, good or (mostly) bad, about him — before he actually dies.

Not surprisingly, the reverend rejects the request. But Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the cynical proprietor of a failing funeral parlor, has no qualms whatsoever about accepting Felix as a customer. Aided by his assistant, Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), an eager young family man who mutes his own misgivings about the enterprise, Frank plots to put the “party” back into “funeral party” by attracting a large crowd of storytellers for Felix’s farewell appearance. To ensure a huge turnout, he proposes selling raffle tickets — and rewarding one lucky attendee with the deed to Felix’s property (effective, of course, after the hermit’s death).

Much like Felix, first-time feature helmer Aaron Schneider (an Oscar winner for the William Faulkner-inspired short “Two Soldiers”) and scripters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell play their cards close to the vest as the day of the funeral party draws closer. The frosty old fellow warms up a bit when reunited with two people from his past: Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), a sweet-natured widow Felix briefly dated decades ago, and Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), who remains mum when Buddy asks about the particulars of his relationship with Felix. But the pic only gradually reveals the method behind Felix’s seeming madness, suggesting that anything anyone might say about the hermit at his funeral can’t possibly be worse than Felix’s own testimony about himself.

At heart a tale of forgiveness and redemption, “Get Low” manages the difficult feat of being at once understated and vigorous in its confident storytelling. The dialogue is peppered with choice bits of droll humor, and Murray –smooth and subtle in a showcase role — lays claim to many of them. Indeed, the pic is most appealing during scenes in which Murray’s deadpan wit plays off Duvall’s dour irascibility, and both actors effortlessly bring out the best in each other. If Murray seems just a tad overmatched, that’s entirely appropriate for the relationship between their characters. “Is it just me,” Frank asks his assistant after losing at wordplay with Felix, “or is he extremely articulate when he wants to be?”

Duvall’s more emotionally charged scenes with Spacek and Cobbs are low-key yet powerful, and Schneider wisely refrains from overemphasizing the obvious with intrusive music or flashy technique. Straightforward simplicity is the defining trait of the pic as a whole, reflected in the evocative bluegrass-flavored score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek and the lovely widescreen lensing of David Boyd. “Get Low” obviously is a labor of love for all involved, but it never resorts to undue yanking on heartstrings.

Get Low

  • Production: A K5 Intl. presentation of a Zanuck Independent production with David Gundlach Prods., Lara Enterprises and TVN, in association with Butcher's Run Films. Produced by Dean Zanuck, David Gundlach. Executive producer, David B. Ginsberg, Harrison Zanuck, C. Gaby Mitchell, Joey Rappa, Robert Duvall, Rob Carliner, Oliver Simon, Daniel Baur, Alain Midzic, Blerim Destani, Dariusz Gasiorowski, Brad Park, Brandie Park, Konrad Wojterkowski, Scott Fischer, Don Mandrik, Chris Provenzano, Beth Crookham. Co-producer, Richard Luke Rothschild. Directed, edited by Aaron Schneider. Screenplay, Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell, from a story by Provenzano, Scott Seeke.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), David Boyd; music, Jan A. Kaczmarek; music supervisor, Evyen Klean; production designer, Geoffrey Kirkland; art director, Korey Michael Washington; set decorator, Frank Galline; costume designer, Julie Weiss; sound, Shirley Libby; associate producers, Lily Phillips, Justyna Pawlak; assistant director, Eric Tignini; casting, Craig Fincannon, Lisa Mae Fincannon. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 12, 2009. Running time: 102 MIN.
  • With: Felix Bush - Robert Duvall Mattie Darrow - Sissy Spacek Frank Quinn - Bill Murray Buddy Robinson - Lucas Black Rev. Gus Horton - Gerald McRaney Rev. Charlie Jackson - Bill Cobbs Carl - Scott Cooper Kathryn - Lori Beth Edgeman WKNG Announcer - Linds Edwards