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Cinema Signal: Go! A slightly flawed character piece with a superb cast.

The Apostle
by Robert Duvall
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Get Low"

When Robert Duvall's quirky character, Felix Bush, talks about it being time to "get low," he's referring to the ground. He's an old recluse in a small southern town, presumably Tennesse circa the late 20s, whose hermit life has inspired all manner of gossip and myth, mostly with a criminal or morally indefensible edge. So it's quite a surprise to the local church minister when he appears brandishing a roll of bills and a request to have a funeral party... for himself. When asked for the reason for this loony idea, the laconic Felix explains that he just wants to hear all the ideas people have about him while he's still around.

Have screenwriters by Chris Provenzano ("Mad Men") and C. Gaby Mitchell ("Blood Diamond") not come up with just the sort of set up to take advantage of Duvall's natural gifts and special skills, or what?

Well, the priest isn't capable of serving the weird old codger's request, opening the way for Felix to wind up in the funeral home of Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) who is facing possible bankruptcy due to a dearth of deaths in town lately. This inspires some quick thinking about how to service the oddball with the crazy idea and maybe rescue his business.

Any qualms or second thoughts are quashed when Felix comes up with an even more outlandish idea. For the grand sum of five dollars, all who attend the party will have a chance, by lottery, to win Felix's property upon his death--a prized house that Felix, a carpenter and craftsman, built, plus acreage that includes extensive woods with native trees. Quinn's ads produce an unexpected large response and he and employee Buddy (exceptional Lucas Black, "Jarhead") are soon counting (and hiding) piles of money.

But what's behind Felix's sudden largesse and contact with people is a profoundly sad story. The film opens on a wide night shot of a house on fire, burning up in a holocaust. Suddenly a figure of a man, his clothes burning, appears from a balcony window, jumps off and runs away into the night. The suggestion that the man is Felix remains as we find him forty years later. We see him alone, chopping wood, chasing strangers off his property and talking to a framed photo of a young woman.

Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), a woman near Felix's age, has returned to town after many years away. When they meet, it's clear that they're old friends. But is she the woman in the photograph? Mattie seems to know Felix like no one else does, but she's not exactly an admirer.

The negativity toward the reprobate is repeated when Felix appropriates Buddy to drive him in Quinn's hearse to a distant church where he finds Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs). This new character is someone else who knows Felix like few others can, and adamantly refuses to attend the funeral party as a back-up speaker. But he's critical to Felix getting his burden off his chest! The funeral, really, is a ritual to lay the secret he's been harboring in the prison of his own mind for four decades to rest. At last. Which is what all this fuss (and colorful amusement) is about.

The biggest problem with the movie is that the highly-hyped notion of his hearing what the townsfolk really think about him is a dud. Someone thought the absence of a promised roasting wouldn't be missed? No... it's a major miscalculation for which the film suffers. Just think about what fun a good roating of this character might have added. So, it's not so much "Get Low" as "Let Down."

The story subterfuge is based on a Tennessee legend of an actual recluse. The unpredictable choices and directions the story takes, shows it. But, while there's a marvelous originality in the characters and situation, faithfulness to the reality behind it, also limits the achievement of a sufficiently dramatic resolution to the tale, as wryly humorous and down-home comfortable as it may be.

But don't get me wrong. This is the first 2010 film that generates thoughts of Academy Award performance nods. While Duvall ("Crazy Heart") is in for the main attention with his grim ironies and contrary understatement, Murray ("Get Smart") does uncliched wonders with a straight character role unlike any in his vast repertoire. Also likely to be buried (pun intended) under all the thespian talent that surrounds him is Lucas Black whose general open-eyed modesty act has rarely had so perfect a role to show us what he can do with it. He adds considerable meat to a role that, under many a similar outline, might be called minor.

Director-editor Aaron Schneider's story is another interesting one. With an extensive credit list as a cinematographer in TV, his 2003 short, "Two Soldiers" may have set him up as a candidate for this low budget arthouse debut. The atmospheric "feel" of rural southern textures is no doubt the product of a collaboration between Schneider's visual training and cinematographer David Boyd's ("Kit Kittredge: An American Girl") talent.

Underlying the final credits is Allison Krauss with a new song. "Lay My Burden Down" features her unique modal phrasing and vocal control that captures the tone of the story and the listener's rapt attention until the final phrase. A new song by this artist is an event.

The casting power that puts this in limited runs in arthouses may not ensure anything more than a modest payback and a DVD release will likely be lined up quickly behind it. But if performance nods for this charming early-summer character piece about a cranky Tennessee reprobate with a secret materializes, it may pick up a second life, and attention commensurate with its better qualities.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Robert Duvall, Lucas Black and Bill Murray
A funeral home client like no other.

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