There's one in nearly every good folk yarn or fairy tale: the mysterious oldster living alone in the woods. In the case of the fact-based and transporting "Get Low," he's a loner who, in an unlikely instance of self-promotion, comes to be known as the Mysterious Hermit of Caleb County, and he's played with unerring understatement by Robert Duvall in one of his finest performances.
In lesser hands this Southern saga might have collapsed into whimsical corn, but cinematographer-turned-director Aaron Schneider has fashioned a measured fable, witty and deeply felt, if at times tipping into melodrama. Duvall's Felix Bush is based on the Tennessee recluse who in 1938, five years before his death, threw himself a funeral party that received national press coverage. Judging by reports, it was a much larger-scale shindig than what unfolds in this fictionalization, which aims to explain why a man might choose a life of solitude.
When an archetype is animated by a great film actor, explanations aren't necessary. But the lean and eloquent screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell contrives an element of suspense concerning 40-year-old events, secrets Felix has held close and needs, at last, to divulge. The shattering glass in the opening scene — armed with rocks, yet another generation of fascinated boys is snooping around Felix's remote cabin — signals a break in his self-contained life. He feels the imminence of death, knows he's demonized and needs to tell his story. And while he's at it, he'd like to hear what people have to say about him. Why not attend his own funeral before he's in the box?
The unorthodox request suits the town's desperate-for-business funeral director, Frank ( Bill Murray, droll and doleful as a smooth salesman), especially after he sees the hermit's hefty wad of cash. More conflicted is Frank's assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black), a sincere young family man with a worried brow.
Buddy, like all the central characters, is drawn to Felix because he sees a man who has been true to himself. Perhaps no one understands Felix's singularity better than the lovely widow ( Sissy Spacek) who once loved him. She brings out his flirtatious charm, and their cautious delight in each other is as lucid as the shard of pain that pierces both their hearts, for different reasons.
There's an ache to every character, not least the two preachers (well etched by Gerald McRaney and Bill Cobbs) whose conventional faith can't always fathom the depths of a man grappling with sin on his own terms. Everyone is still bruised by the Depression, which is evoked in feeling rather than specifics, notwithstanding the terrific period detail, captured in handsome widescreen images.
It's when the back story gets explicit that the narrative's grip loosens. Felix's quest, in one respect, is to make a private conversation very public. In this age of instant confessions, that might feel ordinary. But when he unburdens himself, there's nothing run-of-the-mill about the light burning in Duvall's deep-set eyes.
His genius for inhabiting a character, and his joy in doing so, clearly inspired the outstanding cast. He encapsulates a life in the smallest of gestures — watch him urging a rare guest to eat or, at the sight of another visitor, straightening his tie. As with "Get Low" as a whole, what resounds is not the twists and turns of the story but its telling.