The low down on Get Low


Sissy Spacek in Get Low

Sissy Spacek as Mattie in Get Low, a film that deals humorously with the delicate issues of trust and death.

Death has been a reliable source of comedy on the big screen, from the 1971 oddball Harold and Maude to the more recent horror spoofery of the Scary Movie franchise where Death himself was one of the best characters. Typically, whenever death and comedy are mixed up, out-and-out bad taste is the result. Get Low (out on August 6), however, is a subtler creature, a story where the black humour is reined in to allow for a sense of breathing space for dramatic mystery.

A period story, set in small-town Tennessee in the ‘30s, Get Low is loosely based on a folk tale that screenwriter Chris Provenzano originally heard from his grandfather-in-law, a retired undertaker, at a Thanksgiving dinner. Provenzano took the tale and, along with co-writer C. Gaby Mitchell, fleshed it out.

Eccentric hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), a feared local legend, makes a rare foray into town from his wooded isolation, with a shotgun and a fat roll of greasy dollar bills in hand. Realizing he’s going to “get low” – Bush’s euphemism for going to the grave – the laconic mystery man goes to the church looking for a memorial service. However, he wants it while he’s still alive so he can hear what people are going to say about him. The preacher says that such a thing can’t be bought; it comes for free by asking for God’s forgiveness. This irks Bush and he stomps off. When it comes to the business of death, struggling undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) is less scrupulous. With his honest apprentice Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), together they seek out the old man for the deal that could save the business and so begin the preparations for a “living funeral.”

The big question throughout the film is what is driving Bush to have this funeral. A dark, unspeakable secret is premised in the opening scene of a wooden house in the distance, engulfed in flames. A human figure, on fire, leaps from a second floor window and runs through the night. The significance of this scene, which I found myself constantly turning back to in my mind’s eye, is withheld by director Aaron Schneider to the end. And if the unfolding mystery weren’t handled so adeptly, this would feel a little too much like being toyed with.

The film’s humour derives from the way the characters approach normally delicate situations of dying and trust. Murray, as the spiffy undertaker, obsequious, desperate and secretively alcoholic, is in sharp contrast to the gruff, straight-talking Bush. The youthful Buddy provides another counterpoint, the straight man for Murray’s deadpan humour – Murray has the best lines – and someone in whom Bush can place his trust. Sissy Spacek also plays a minor part. The actors do a great job, particularly Duvall who thoroughly inhabits the role of wild man of the woods and easily switches gears from comedy to scenes that evoke the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation at the heart of the film.

Also coming up this month is the humorous Soul Kitchen (August 13). Fatih Akin’s film, which won the Special Jury Prize and the Young Cinema Award at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, tells the story of a restaurant owner who strives to keep his business, despite a series of mishaps.

With its themes of friendship, love and village-like community, the film has been described as reminiscent of a German genre made popular in the 1950s called “Heimatfilm” (homeland-film), i.e. the Soul Kitchen restaurant. It looks like a busy soundtrack with funky instrumentals from Kool & The Gang, classical R&B tracks by Sam Cooke, Hamburg hip hop and electro sounds, live rock music, Greek Rembetiko and a de rigueur DJ-set and a “Heimatfilm”. For good measure, there’s also a song by Hans Albers, apparently one of Germany’s top actor-singers in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Robert Alstead made the Vancouver documentary You Never Bike Alone. www.youneverbikealone.com. He writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.