Of the crop of talented young leading men who emerged in the 1970s – Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson – the best of the bunch, for my money, is Robert Duvall. He has consistently delivered top notch performances from Maj. Frank Burns in MASH to Tom Hagen in The Godfather series to Lt. Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now to Bull Meecham in The Great Santini to Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies to Sonny Dewey in The Apostle. Duvall has essentially run a decades long seminar for the world on what it means to be a great actor. His dedication to his craft is evident not only from this long list (of which these are only some highlights), but from the way he totally immerses himself in a role. Tess Harper, Duvall’s co-star in Tender Mercies, has said that she never got to know Robert Duvall; he came to the set every day as Mac Sledge and that is the man she got to know. Even in small parts – cameos really – he dominates scenes because we immediately see he took the time to do more than learn his lines and show up. Think back to last year’s The Road where he lumbers into a scene, tells his story, and leaves. This could have been a throw away cameo, but Duvall invested his character with history and emotion, easily making his scene the most memorable in the picture.
Robert Duvall wows again in the recently released Get Low, a Depression era tale of redemption. The movie itself is thin, but Duvall, with the help of an amazing supporting cast including Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, and Gerald McRaney, makes it all much more compelling than it would have read on paper. Duvall plays Felix Bush, a longtime hermit living in the woods outside of a small Tennessee (?) town. Felix rides into town one day with a wad of cash demanding a funeral for himself that he and “everyone who has a story about him” can attend. The kicker of course is he wants to be at his own funeral to tell his story. There is some dark secret that is alluded to throughout the picture that inspired Felix’s move into the woods, but the nature of the secret is annoyingly kept from us, to be saved for a big climactic speech. Felix intends to come clean, to everyone in town who has so feared and hated Bush for nearly 40 years, at his funeral.
Funeral director Frank Quinn and his assistant Buddy (Murray and Black) are initially flummoxed by Felix’s request. They have never arranged a funeral for a man who is alive, but Quinn’s business is failing and, once getting over the initial shock, leaps to meet Felix’s demands and earn that wad of cash. Buddy is less enthusiastic, anxious about the feeling that they may be taking advantage of Bush.
The movie itself meanders around, skirting the edges of what it wants to say, afraid to give us too much lest the climax be ruined. It was frustrating to watch townspeople whisper and stare at Bush as he rode through town. What are they saying? What do they think he did? I hardly understood why we weren’t treated to more stories about the man. A small town like this would almost certainly have constructed some sort of mythology about the hermit in the woods, so why is the audience kept in the dark? There is an allusion to something he may or may not have done when he is confronted by an angry young man. All he tells Bush is, “I know what you did.” Well… what? The obfuscation does little to build dramatic tension; instead it raised my frustration level.
We are finally treated to him big “confession” at the end, but it is hardly anything shocking. I could see why he felt guilty, but why did the reverend he confessed everything to urge him to confess? Confess to what?
The joy of the movie is Robert Duvall and, to a lesser extent, the supporting cast. Duvall inhabits Felix Bush completely. He transcends the bushy beard and Southern accent to embody a real person, not a caricature. He is ornery, impatient, stubborn, and all the attributes we might normally attribute to a stereotypical hermit, but he is also hungry for redemption, especially from Mattie, a former sweetheart (Spacek). We clearly sense the conflict between Felix’s natural reticence to get close to people and his aching for forgiveness, a conflict brilliantly played out at the funeral in an absolutely stunning speech. OK, the movie is not great, but it’s good enough for Duvall’s performance not to be wasted. He rescues this lackluster movie and makes it worth seeing.