Get Low is one of those movies that really should have been better than it is. The film has an interesting premise and the cast to pull that premise off, and yet somehow it simply falls flat. I would like to know the intent behind the film, because intention is the difference between a failure of execution and a failure of conception, and perhaps that would matter to some viewers.
The film claims to be based on a true story. It follows a funeral director in the 1920s or 30s who is sought out by the crazy old hermit of his county to handle his funeral—before he dies. The invitation is publicized; anyone who has a story to tell about the old man is to come and tell it, and of course everyone has a story about him and everyone will come just to see the spectacle. This was the part of the premise which showed in the previews and which made me want to see the movie; it looked like a dark comedy or the sort of off-beat “quirky” story that Bill Murray (who is the funeral director) has been so grand in for the past 10 years or so.
Unfortunately, the film takes a turn into sentimentality when we discover the old man is not seeking amusement or to leave the world on a bang but rather redemption for a long-ago sin that drove him to a 40-year self-imposed punishment, and the story never recovers its early momentum. If the film is based on a true story, then the filmmakers could not take that redemption aspect out…but why not, then, advertise the film as a drama more than a comedy? Expectations can ruin someone’s experience of a film, not the least because an expectation may attract an audience who would not have wanted to watch the film as it truly is, and with good reason—they are not the right audience for it.
I also want to know if this movie was an attempt to simply recreate the story as it might really have happened. Was the mystery of the old man’s reasoning left unturned, making this movie an attempt to account for what his past might have been? If the events did happen as the movie portrays…who thought this would still resonate with modern culture?
See, the problem I had with this film (aside from the turn into the sentimental which I was unprepared for and uninterested in) is that it failed to deliver on the promises of its mystery and tension. We are told that this man has a “darkness” in him, a secret that he has held for 40 years, a sin that drove him to punish himself for life. That is a lot of guilt to carry, one hell of a sin that must have been committed.
The problem with this movie was that his sin really wasn’t that enormous. Not really. Not by today’s standards. I was left feeling like…that’s it? That’s his big reason? Not enough.
My reaction to that old man’s sin is where the intent comes in. If this really was what happened in real life, up to and including his reasons for becoming a hermit, then the film is a faithful period piece that showcases how far our values and social mores have changed. If this was an attempt to fill in what was not known, then either the filmmaker wanted a faithful period piece and came close to success, or they failed utterly to create a proper scandal and thus failed all around. I honestly am not sure which is the case. I hope it is a faithful recreation of what happened, in which case the only real fail was marketing, because I was disappointed, going in expecting a dark comedy.
The film was not entirely terrible, and that is perhaps the most frustrating part of all. The setting, costuming, and acting were all well done. Robert Duvall shone as the old curmudgeon, Sissy Spacek glode in one of her rare appearances as a woman from his past, Bill Murray was his usual sardonic wit as the funeral director, and even Lucas Black’s wide-eyed earnestness seemed right in place here as the funeral director’s assistant. Only the story was lacking—the mystery failed to deliver on the promises it made early on.
I can’t say that I hated this movie; it didn’t make me feel anything strongly enough for that. But it wasn’t funny the way the previews implied, and it left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Get Low should have been better than it was, period.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.