Starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek , and Lucas Black. Directed by Aaron Schneider; Written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell. Rated PG-13, 103 minutes
People who withdraw from society and retreat to solitude are often thought to be either crazy or saints. They have secrets that they often take with them to their graves.
The story behind this movie, allegedly drawing on a true episode of 1938 Tennessee, has won praise for its beginning and criticism for its shortcomings. Both the director, Aaron Schneider, and one of the co-writers, Chris Provanzano, have worked in TV, but the other writer, C. Gaby Mitchell, wrote Blood Diamond, and Robert Duvall has executive produced as well as carried this movie from its highs to its lows as its star.
We open on a windy night with flames licking at the dormers of a frame farmhouse, gaining energy, engulfing the building, when something--is it debris or a person?--falls from the far gable. Sometime later a boy cracks a window pane, and then scurries to a barn like a varmint. A shot rings out. Is this the same house?
The boy is confronted by a frightening vision of a man with wild hair and beard carrying a shot gun, and the miscreant petrified youth reflexively vomits. The scraggly old man (Duvall’s character, Felix) pounds into the ground at the property border a neatly lettered sign: “No Damn Trespassing; Beware of Mule.” He then receives the local preacher announcing the death of a friend and invites him to the funeral.
As he meanders aimlessly through the cemetery to pay his respects, pausing briefly to stare at an older grave with fresh daffodils, I was reminded of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”:
"I wander’d lonely as a cloud; That floats on high o’er vales and hills; When all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils."
Felix hooks up the mule to his buck-board of what must be rural western Tennessee. He goes to town to speak to the preacher about organizing his funeral, recognizing that his time to “Get Low” is nigh. The preacher is not enticed by a wad of cash, but the idea of organizing a funeral and having a funeral party has been hatched.
The local undertaker--Bill Murray’s character, Frank Quinn--muses that the funeral business can never fail, but that the people around there just won’t die. His second in command, Buddy, was in the church and recognized that they had an opportunity with Felix Bush. (Seeing this brought me back to my own family burial rituals: The Quinn funeral home on Park Avenue in East Orange, NJ, was for the Irish, like my grandparents, Tom and Margaret Carney; whereas, the Italian funerals were at Ippolitos in Orange, near the Mt. Carmel church and St. Mary’s Hospital ,where I was born).
Felix returned to his mule and rig to receive the taunts outside Lou’s café, whose proprietor shoos him away but physically threatens him. Felix throttles and knocks him down, and we see that he is loathed, feared, and hated, but no one knows exactly why. He’s a recluse on his own, and society has filled in the blanks with their own versions of made-up reality. He’s known for being ornery and quick-triggered: his reputation grows, but the loose-lipped gossip amplifies anecdotes into verities without needing evidence.
Mattie Darrow, played by Sissy Spacek, was Felix’s love interest years ago, but she moved to St. Louis to marry a doctor. When he died, she returned home, and visiting Felix finds an old photo--Is it her? It strikes a troubling chord and sounds the tone of mystery.
Robert Duvall’s storied career began with his 1963 portrayal of “Boo” Radley, another bogeyman holed up in his house and rarely seen. Duvall’s acting is intense and admired, his performances filled with quirky tics and halting to raging dialog. His performance here animates the movie.
Recognizing death knocking should be familiar to every oncologist. Surprisingly for our death-denying society, this movie tackles mortality with a mixture of seriousness and absurdity with more of the emphasis on the former. Duvall is known for his mannered performances and quirky cadences of speech, and his plays these with virtuosity. Felix may be a riddle to most, but he has more humanity than he is given credit for.
Those living long lives always have stories. Rarely do we savor the lives our patients have lived, learn where they come from, and why did they come to where they are. There are no RVUs for finding out whether they came from Paradise Valley or Albany Georgia, or even how to properly pronounce that.
The unlikely next chapter in the movie is a drive to Southern Illinois to meet the Reverend Charley Jackson, a thick-set, white-collared black preacher who knows all of Felix secrets. His beautiful chapel of handhewn wood was constructed lovingly by Felix. I wondered how Felix and Charley, a white man and a black man, bond in the turn of the century when this was surely forbidden? Did he seek redemption in his craftsmanship? Did he seek God or Jesus where he was least expected?
But not only were they friends, they were intimates knowing each other’s secrets. Felix begins to get cold feet about having the funeral party where everyone would tell their stories about him. His dark secret needed to be told. Could he have the guts to do it? Would Charley be better at it? Since a great deal of money had been accumulated to buy the raffle tickets for his land, both Frank Quinn and Buddy had more than a passing interest in the funeral party taking place, and Felix seemed to be backing out.
The movie purportedly is based on a true story of a man wanting to attend his own funeral party. The themes of guilt and devotion, forgiveness and redemption echo through the thicker gothic portion of the movie. Can we trade a life of sacrifice to atone for sins real or perceived? Can we earn forgiveness by our actions or is it grace bestowed despite our unworthiness?
A self-sentenced exile, a torrid lost and forbidden love, and a need to set the record straight before breathing a last breath all energize and animate this movie.
Robert Duvall’s performance at age 79 must spring from a source close to home, but his ability to humanize this feral recluse to a sympathetic, credible, and loving character requires magic. Death is not only a reality, but an opportunity to finally make sense of a life’s long journey of suffering brought quietly to an end. See it and see how.
"For oft when on my couch I lie; In vacant or in pensive mood; They flash upon that inward eye; Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills; and dances with the daffodils."