Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2009)

A Story that Needs to be Told
I love good stories. Sitting in a rocking chair on my grandmother’s front porch on a hot Alabama summer night, listening to my father and his brothers laugh about boyhood egg-stealing; cold November evenings in northern Minnesota while the Block kids recall the bringing-the-horse-in-the-house tale; Edith Schaeffer, dropping names and recounting miracles high in the Swiss Alps: it doesn’t get any better than this.

In my opinion Get Low tells a very good story. My delight in it is, no doubt, due in part to the fact that Chris Provenzano’s screenplay is as essentially southern a tale as the ones I used to hear on my grandmother’s front porch. The personalities, events, music, the look and feel of it are as familiar to me as my Dad’s stories of his childhood. I know these people. Indeed I wonder how many of them I may be related to. For me watching Get Low felt like a visit home. Of course, these qualities that endeared it to me may distance it from others. The New York Times review of Get Low, while quite complimentary on the whole couldn’t resist this jab: “Get Low is, in the end, not quite believable.” Not believable? You need to spend a little time south of Manhattan.

Actor Robert Duvall’s taste in stories is impeccable. Over the years he’s brought many of them to life and created some unforgettable characters: Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, Sonny Dewey in The Apostle, Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. Get Low’s Felix Bush is as memorable as any of them. “I talked to God a lot about you over the years,” a friend tells him. “He said he broke the mold when he made you, said you sure were entertaining to watch—but way too much trouble.”

After living alone for more than 30 years in a cabin in the woods near a small town in the hills, Bush startles the local minister with his presence one morning and with an odd request: “It’s time for me to get low,” he says, and explains that he wants to host his own funeral, a big party to which everyone is town is invited to come and tell stories about him. He, of course, wants to be present—alive—and to listen.

From this unconventional beginning the story leisurely unfolds through the introduction and interaction of other memorable characters. When the preacher declines to take part, Bush turns to Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the director of the local funeral home, whose reservations about the project are easily overcome by his greed: “Oooh, hermit money!” Frank’s greenhorn assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) gently guides Bush—and us—through the preparations. The appearance of Bush’s old flame Mattie (Sissy Spacek) after an absence of many years adds a touch of spice and grace to proceedings.

All these apparently random introductions take on a sharper focus when we meet Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), the minister Bush wants to preach at his funeral. It seems Jackson is the only man alive that knows a certain story about Bush and his past, a story that Bush wants told, a story that needs to be told. It’s a story of love and loss, of sin and redemption, of guilt and forgiveness. And I couldn’t help but wonder in hearing it if this is what made Get Low so “unbelievable” to the New York Times.

What makes a story a story that needs to be told? Writer Rebecca Horton gives this answer:
I sometimes challenge myself by asking the question ‘does this story need to be told?’ …stories become needed, not because the author felt that they were needed, but instead because there is a deep human longing for truth, meaning, and relationship that extends beyond material need. Good stories scratch the itch that lies just below the surface of things, churning up just enough dust to make others curious.

Get Low admirably scratches the itch without satisfying it. It stirs up the dust just enough to make us curious. It’s a tale that needs to be told. Would that more filmmakers, especially those who are believers, learn to tell it as well.


1. Discuss your first impressions of Get Low. What does watching this film leave you thinking about? 2. What do you think Felix means when he announces, “It’s time for me to get low”? 3. The original tagline for the film wasn’t the one that survives on most Get Low posters—“A True Tall Tale”—but “Every secret dies somewhere.” What is Felix’s secret? Does his need for the secret to become known strike you as believable? Why or why not? 4. Scott Seeke, a Lutheran minister, collaborated with Chris Provenzano in writing Get Low’s screenplay. On his blog he writes, I think the reason I wanted to tackle this topic is because guilt is something we all deal with but that has become taboo in our culture. We don’t know how to deal with it. That includes all churches except the traditional mainline ones. These usually open their worship with a ‘Confession and Forgiveness.’ Everyone else avoids the topic as much as possible. Church experts will tell you that people don’t want to come to church and hear how bad they are. They don’t want to come to church and be confronted with things they have done wrong. Instead, they want to hear a positive message. Which is fine. I get that. I don’t want people to come to church and be beaten over the head with talk of their sin and how much they suck. But when do we talk about guilt? Because it’s there. People feel guilty about things they’ve done. Even in the era of moral relativity, there is still guilt and shame. There is still a need for forgiveness. Guilt and forgiveness is a core part of the human experience. That has not changed and will never change. But we don’t know how to handle it anymore. Discuss this quote. 5. One critic disparaged Get Low saying, “Nothing happened for too long.” Did the film’s pace seem slow to you? Why? 6. When Mattie sees her sister’s picture on the wall of Felix’s cabin, she is shocked and leaves. Do you understand her reaction? Do you agree with it? 7. In Owen Smith’s New Yorker review he writes, Had I been in that crowd, I would have been tempted to shout, Don’t tell us, old man! Keep your mystery, and your land, to yourself! Duvall could have done it; imagine him bending down to whisper his guilt into Spacek’s ear, with Murray close by, eavesdropping, and the rest of us shut out. Or imagine if Felix had died beforehand, leaving his baffled mourners to do the whispering. Get Low is deftly played, and it rarely mislays its ambling charm, but what a forbidding fable it could have been if the truth about Felix Bush, rather than emerging into sunlight, had slunk back into the woods. Discuss this quote. Do you agree with him? 8. In James 5 we are instructed “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” In the protestant tradition we’ve had a tendency not to take this admonition to heart. Discuss your experiences with confession and reconciliation. Is it, as the old saying goes, “Good for the soul”?