Last year in "The Road," Robert Duvall appeared briefly as a decrepit old man, near death and slogging forward through the burned-out landscape for no other reason than that he hadn't yet passed away. Duvall returns as an elderly fellow in the 2010 Sundance flick "Get Low," a haunted codger pushing forward, again, simply because he's not yet underground.
It is the role of a lifetime, and the 79-year-old should expect a big sloppy Oscar kiss come 2011. His Felix Bush has been hiding out in the backwoods for forty years, a self-imposed prison sentence for sins about which we can only guess. Townsfolk have countless stories about Bush — he killed a man, he's a minion of the Devil — but no one knows for sure until the man shows up with the idea to stage a funeral for himself while he's still alive. Bill Murray, as the local undertaker who'd be a slimy salesman if he weren't so existentially exhausted, is there to assist in the proceedings.
Scraggily, wrinkled, wheezy, Duvall inhabits the character of Bush so seamlessly you might end up worrying about the actor's health. Capable of both violence and witty barbs, he is the crotchety philosopher king of 1930s timber country, immediately likeable despite his flaws and foibles. A special shout out goes to his beard, a Brillo Pad-like overgrowth that looks like it might be hiding Felix's stash of beef jerky and which completes the look of a crazy-eyed hermit.
In his supporting role, Murphy brings a sense of levity to the storyline, popping off funny quips and keeping us guessing about whether he's going to stick to his morals or give in to greed (a credit, as well, to the strong script from Chris Provenzano of "Mad Men" and C. Gaby Mitchell of "Blood Diamond). As a woman connected to Felix's past, Sissy Spacek is not given much to do besides look teary-eyed and apprehensive, but she manages to take what little is on the page and create a believable portrait of a widow searching for a reason to keep on going.
It seems best to say little about the mystery at center of the story—what exactly happened to Felix?—that is unveiled in layers, other than that it builds toward an ending that is not so much climax as it is emotional bloodletting. Take note of "Get Low," whose title refers to Felix's slang for getting down to business. You'll want to seek out this film when it comes to a theater near you.