Details: (M), 103 mins, In Cinemas 26 May 2011, United States, English
Synopsis: A mysterious, 1930s Tennessee hermit (Robert Duvall) throws his own funeral party while he's still alive.
Duvall shines in engaging tale of guilt and redemption.
It might be a stretch to say Robert Duvall waited his whole life to play Felix Bush, a hermit who harbours a dark secret in this gripping, 1930s-set drama from first-time director Aaron Schneider.
But there’s no doubt Duvall’s performance ranks among the finest of his illustrious career, on par with his Oscar-winning turn in Bruce Beresford’s 1983 opus Tender Mercies.
Often given minimal dialogue until a bravura climactic speech, the actor who turned 80 in January brilliantly conveys a range of emotions with his eyes and grizzled face: anger, cynicism, regret, suspicion, wry amusement and guilt.
As Bush contemplates the end of his life after 40 years in seclusion, he comes up with a novel idea: throwing a ‘living funeral’ party where townsfolk are invited to tell stories about him while he listens. To ensure the event is well-attended, he arranges to sell $5 lottery tickets offering his 300 acre property as the prize.
That notion sounds far fetched but the screenplay by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell is inspired by the real-life case of Felix "Bush" Breazeale, a Tennessee recluse who staged his own funeral in 1938 and drew a crowd of 12,000 by selling lottery tickets for the deed to his land; he lived for another five years.
Initially Bush is a gruff, unsympathetic character, beating a hapless guy in the street who abused him. There are rumours that he killed a man in a fist fight years ago and he acknowledges most folks regard him as a “crazy old nutter.” A mule is his only companion and he treasures a faded picture of a young woman.
His exotic funeral idea is manna from heaven for the greedy, wily undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), who tells his young sidekick Buddy (Lucas Black) that he smells “hermit money.”
A glimpse into Bush’s murky past comes when attractive widow Maddie (Sissy Spacek), a former flame, returns to the town after the death of her doctor husband. “A thousand years ago, he was the most interesting man I’d ever met,” she reflects.
And Quinn learns more about the hermit when he goes to Illinois to beg Felix's feisty preacher friend Charlie (Bill Cobb) to give the eulogy.
Buddy, who possesses more scruples than his devious boss, forms an unlikely bond with the old man and serves as his chauffeur. As the funeral approaches, Felix struggles with the painful prospect of unburdening his secret. When the day arrives, Duvall masterfully delivers a soliloquy with all the guile, stagecraft and gravitas he’d acquired over a 50-year career.
The mood is often leavened with bursts of humour, typified by Murray’s deadpan delivery; Bush’s declaration that “the first 38 are the hardest” in reference to his 40 years’ isolation; and the repartee between Quinn and the naïve, earnest Buddy.
The soundtrack features songs of the era including ‘My Blue Heaven,’ ‘Farewell Blues’ and ‘If I Didn't Care,’ plus Jan Kaczmarek’s evocative, moody score which mixes lush orchestral arrangements with simple piano and guitar.
It’s an assured directing debut by Schneider, a former cinematographer who’d worked mostly in TV. He shows a sure grasp of the material while the shrewd casting pays off with stellar performances from all the principal players led by the remarkable Duvall.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
Land, Money and Power… Dig deep into Australia’s epic history of mining.
The Tony award-winner sings Broadway numbers and re-imagines modern tunes from Lady Gaga to Sting.