Saturday, September 11, 2010

Absolution in the land of Deliverance

There's little for me to add to the chorus of praise for Get Low (2010), as well written, shot and acted a film as one is likely to see this year (although that is rather a low bar to reach), so I will try to confine myself to a few quick and perhaps random observations.

The story is about a man who is going to be put in a box in the ground. He is a man who is good at making anything out of wood, including boxes. He even makes his own box to put his body in the ground, and it is beautiful. Is it for that reason, that most of the indoor settings look like the inside of a well-made box, with the sunlight scarcely illuminating these characters, who will all eventually go into one of these boxes?

I should have said at the outset that Get Low is one of the most beautiful looking films to come along in a long time, and not in a self-indulgent way, as in Eat, Pray, Love but in order to reveal the hidden beauties of what may seem to outsiders (especially city folk and Northerners) as a harsh and unrewarding way of life. This is hardly surprising, given that director Aaron Schneider has spent most of his career as a cinematographer (albeit without a really memorable work on his resume).

And not only does the wood look burnished and glowing; the actors, especially Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek look as though they are carved out of beautiful wood. Not that their performances are wooden--no, they are tonally perfect. But they appear to be in touch with the natural world as their characters are. The town people, represented by Bill Murray and Lucas Black are pale indoor folk, struggling to keep up with events instead of shaping them. And the magnificent Bill Cobb seems to have emanated from the wood of his church, a kind of tree himself, a fixed point from which to navigate the terms of good and evil (which, as his character says, are all tangled up together).

Bill Murray has become the most perfect film actor of his generation. Like most of the greats, he is a reactor. (John Wayne was famous for giving other actors the long speeches so he could simply react to them. Gary Cooper was great at that, too.) Whereas his contemporary comic actor Steve Martin has two modes: meta-, stepping out of the film and commenting on it (usually to the film's detriment) and embarrassingly sincere, as in A Simple Twist of Fate or Pennies from Heaven. Murray keeps his irony intact--he always has a double vision of what is before him, but manages it without the overt wink at the audience. The wink isn't necessary. We know Bill Murray, we know who he is. We trust him as our guide as to what is reasonable and what is ridiculous. And is acceptance of each preposterous suggestion of Robert Duvall as natural and desirable (an acceptance driven by Murray's desperation, not greed) is a plentiful comic wellspring, a wellspring I cannot imagine gushing so copiously with any other actor alive.

And giving Mr. Schneider his due, Murray does not pull the film off-kilter or off course. His irony and wiles are put in service of the story and of its lovely denouement. I can't say that Duvall's climactic confession was as surprising or shocking as it may have been meant to be, but no matter--it is what that confession means to Duvall's character, to his former romance, Sissy Spacek and to the people of the town who had never seen him as human.

It's a movie of immense balance and poise. The people with me thought the film was slow. I thought it was measured, like a Handel Largo or a Laurel & Hardy movie. If you sit back and wait patiently, you will be rewarded. You may even see some interesting things along the way. Like life.

(And for heavens sake, click on the Easter Egg in this post. It's fascinating.)

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