(Warning: contains spoilers. Sort of. But I won’t give away the full ending.)
Everyone has a story to tell. Some are worth telling; others not. And some must be told. But have you ever wondered what stories will be told about you when you die?
On the strength of the recommendation in a recent post on Daniel Kirk’s Storied Theology blog, I decided to get hold of Get Low, a Robert Duvall/Bill Murray/Sissy Spacek vehicle that opened to good reviews in the summer of 2010. The screenplay is loosely based on the life of Felix Bushaloo Breazeale, affectionately known as “Uncle Bush,” who in 1937 decided to have his funeral before he died, so he could hear what would be said in the eulogy. In the summer of ’38, the widely publicized event drew an unprecedented crowd of 12,000 to the little rural town of Cave Creek, Tennessee. (Read more here.)
To this basic framework, the screenwriters add a darker backstory. Felix Bush (Duvall) is a mysterious recluse with a terrible secret, as foreshadowed by the movie’s opening scene: a farmhouse is engulfed in flames, and a dark figure runs off into the night.
Felix lives alone in the Tennessee backwoods. No one knows or cares to know him personally, though rumors and fantastic stories about his evil past have become legend for miles around. Hearing from the local minister that someone he knows has just died of old age, Felix begins thinking of his own mortality. He knows that people tell tall tales about him. What stories would come out at his funeral?
Felix enlists funeral director Frank Quinn (Murray) to help plan his “funeral party,” where people are invited to come tell their own stories about the crazy old hermit in the woods. Quinn is clearly in it for the money–“hermit money” as he greedily calls it. Not so his young apprentice, Buddy (Lucas Black), who slowly begins to appreciate that Felix is a real person with his own story to tell, not the monster he’s been made to be in the fevered imaginations of ignorant townspeople.
There is both defiance and whimsy in Felix’s party plans. But his situation becomes more complicated when Mattie Darrow (Spacek)–an old flame, recently widowed–returns to town. Hearing other people’s stories isn’t a game anymore. The question becomes: will the truth be told, the real story of the secret that has kept Felix in his self-imposed exile for 40 years? He needs forgiveness, particularly from Mattie. When the time comes, will he be able to speak the truth?
There are religious themes throughout the movie. Felix, with Buddy in tow, tries to convince a friend, the Reverend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), to be the one to tell the story. The minister refuses, insisting that Felix is the one who must do it, to make his peace with Mattie and with God. When Felix leaves in a fit of pique, Jackson tells Buddy that it was Felix who many years ago built the sanctuary in which they were sitting.
Eventually, in the movie’s climactic scene, Felix addresses the crowd that has gathered for his funeral, at last confessing the tragic truth as Mattie and the others listen in silence. Duvall is pitch-perfect, giving emotional resonance to what otherwise might have been merely maudlin. In some ways, though, the ending is still a bit too pat, moving too quickly to reconciliation and reunion. Not surprisingly, any meaningful sense of what God demands is eased aside in favor of a simpler moral: Confession, as we know, is Good for the Soul. (For the full ending, see the Wikipedia article.)
Nevertheless, there is food for thought in the way the film weaves together the themes of meaning-making, storytelling, identity, and community. There are the stories the townspeople tell about Felix to fill the holes in their imaginations. There is the story Felix tells about himself, a story of love and guilt, crime and passion, of sins he must expiate by sheer willpower without turning to God. That story, unbending and untold, is his private prison.
And there is the story that God tells. It is implied in the words of Reverend Jackson, perhaps most poignantly in the ambivalent eulogy he gives to the small group at Felix’s actual graveside. There are no tall tales, no stories told. There is only the hint that Felix missed his place in the Story that counted most.