(Sony Classics) Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs, Scott Cooper, Lori Beth Edgeman, Linds Edwards, Andrea Powell, Chandler Riggs, Danny Vinson, Blerim Destani, Andy Stahl. Directed by Aaron Schneider
I think to a certain extent most of us would love to attend our own funerals. After all, it is a time when those who survive us think the best of us; who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall when their friends and loved ones are talking about us from the heart?
Felix Bush (Duvall) is a recluse living in the hills alone in a cabin that he built. All he has is a shotgun, his mule, a wad of cash and forty years of loneliness. One morning Rev. Horton (McRaney), a local pastor, calls on him to alert him that one of his old friends has passed on. Horton is a bit nervous and understandably so; Bush has a reputation for being violent, unpredictable and possibly even Satanic. Horton invites Bush to the funeral, but Felix brushes him off, making it unclear whether or not he’ll show. True to his mercurial nature, he arrives after everyone else has left.
Nonetheless that gets him thinking about his own mortality; he’s not a young man anymore, so he stops to see the good Reverend about arranging his own funeral with a bit of a twist – he wants it thrown while he’s still alive. Horton is a little taken aback by this and Felix storms out, but his proposal is overheard by Buddy Robinson (Black), the assistant to local funeral home director Frank Quinn (Murray).
When Frank hears about the incident from his underling, he is intrigued – by the size of the wad of cash Buddy says he has. Frank is originally from Chicago where, he tells Buddy sourly, people know how to die – they get hit by cars, shot by mobsters or drop down dead in the streets. “We know how to die hereabouts too,” drawls Buddy, “only we’re not in such a hurry to go about it.”
Frank, intimidated by Felix’ reputation, sends Buddy in to see if the hermit is still interested in throwing a funeral for himself and as it turns out, he is – and he and Buddy manage to establish a little bit of a bond. Frank brings Felix to town to work out some of the details – for instance, he wants the funeral to be open to “anybody who has a story to tell about me,” and to entice people to show up, allows people to sign up for a lottery for five dollars; the name that is drawn will inherit Felix’ land, with virgin timber rights and worth thousands of dollars. Felix begins to connect not only with Frank and Buddy, but with Mattie (Spacek), a widow with whom Felix once had a romantic relationship years and years prior.
As Felix begins to return to the world, it becomes clear that he has been holding onto a terrible secret for some forty years and it becomes even more clear that the funeral is not about Felix hearing what other people think about him (he really doesn’t give a damn what other people think) so much as for Felix to get this terrible burden off his chest. To that end, he wants the Reverend Charlie Jackson (Cobbs) to preach at his “funeral party,” mainly because he is the only man alive who knows Jackson’s secret. As the big day gets closer, Felix’ resolve begins to waver and Reverend Jackson shows no interest in helping Felix out. The funeral party is in jeopardy, which would ruin Frank’s business and put the young Buddy out of work, with a wife and new baby to feed.
Schneider has had some Oscar experience for some of the short films he’s directed; this is his first full-length feature and it’s an impressive one. The story is based on the real life Felix “Uncle Bush” Brezeale who threw himself a funeral in rural Tennessee in 1938. There was a Reverend Charlie Jackson who preached at that funeral, and as depicted here, there was also a musical ensemble that played for the entertainment of the large crowd that gathered.
However, most of the dramatic action is an invention, particularly concerning Felix’ past. Schneider couldn’t have chosen a better actor for the role than Duvall, one of America’s best living actors. Now pushing 80 years old, Duvall doesn’t appear onscreen nearly as often; this is by far the best role he’s had since 1997’s The Apostle although I saw a lot of his “Lonesome Dove” TV role as Gus McCrae in his Felix Bush – despite the differences in character between the gregarious Gus and the curmudgeonly Felix.
Duvall carries the film for certain, but he is equaled by Murray, who shows the same level of performance as he achieved in Lost in Translation. He plays Frank with typical drollness, delivered with the twinkle of a conman’s eye. Frank is a complicated sort who isn’t quite trustworthy, or at least doesn’t inspire that kind of trust, even among the fairly simple folk of the town. Murray excels at this kind of role, going back to Caddyshack and beyond. Mention needs to be made of Spacek, who gives some of her finest work of the past decade here in a very down-to-earth role. One forgets how good she can be; it’s been a very long time since Coal Miner’s Daughter but when she gets the right role, as she does here, Spacek is as good as they get.
Schneider also enlisted Emmy-winning cinematographer David Boyd (“Deadwood”) to capture the majesty of the hill country in autumn. It’s a beautiful looking film, full of rich browns, muted sepia tones and flickering firelight.
The big secret is a bit of a disappointment; it’s pretty much what you think it is, and an opening prologue will give you all the clues you need to figure it out if you watch carefully, but even given that, Duvall’s delivery of the speech where he discloses the reason he has lived in exile from humanity for 40 years is a powerful, memorable performance.
This is one of those happenstance movies where all the right elements come together and magic happens as a result. The film captures time and place and allows us to dwell there for a short while and on that level can be enjoyed thoroughly. There really isn’t a message here that I could detect other than to let go of your burdens before they become the only thing you can call your own. Still, that’s a plenty good message to me, to which I add another one; if Robert Duvall and Bill Murray are in a movie separately or together, that is a movie worth seeing.
REASONS TO GO: Oscar-worthy performances by Duvall and Murray, while Spacek does her best work in years. Beautiful cinematography of the Georgia hill country and a great sense of place and time make this a magic place to stop for a spell.
REASONS TO STAY: The big reveal of Felix’ secret is a little bit anti-climactic; most everyone will have figured out what it is long before then.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material, having to do with the secret that Felix is holding onto, is probably a bit difficult for kids. There are a few swear words, but by and large this is suitable for teens and above.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is loosely based on an incident that occurred in Roane County, Tennessee in 1938, it was filmed in Georgia and is set about ten years earlier.
HOME OR THEATER: While some of the gorgeous cinematography deserves a big screen, I would normally say that this limited release gem will be just as nice on the home screen except that a movie like this deserves all the support it can get.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
TOMORROW: Paul Blart: Mall Cop