Get Low opens Friday in select theaters (see times below)

Our rating:

There was once a man, a very scary man, who lived by himself in the Tennessee woods. No one in town really knew him, but all sorts of stories were told that frightened two generations of children. Folks said he murdered somebody, and there was dark talk of a terrible fire.

He’s the character at the center of Get Low and his horribleness is demonstrated in the film’s first scene, in which a couple of enterprising young lads trespass onto his property and get themselves scared witless when the wild-eyed coot says “boo.”

But we know this old man isn’t really dangerous; underneath the bluster, he’s a gentle, heartbroken soul. We know this as he bangs in a neatly engraved No Trespassing sign, we know this as he efficiently beats up a town loudmouth and we know this as his only friend appears to be a black minister who lives in Illinois. He’s the misunderstood ogre in the shadows, and he’s played by Robert Duvall. Yes, Duvall. After all these years, he’s still playing Boo Radley.

In this film, Boo is called Felix Bush, and his story is that after 40 years of mysterious backwoods seclusion, he’s decided that he wants to hold a funeral for himselfwhile he’s still alive. This would allow him to hear all the awful things the townsfolk have to say about him.

There’s a certain appeal to this premise, and indeed, it’s based on an actual 1938 episode in eastern Tennessee. However, that tale played out as a Preston Sturges-like film of wacky, weird America as an illiterate bumpkin named Felix “Bush” Breazeale briefly became a national celebrity, complete with a publicity trip to New York. But this wouldn’t be the heartwarming, life lesson-giving film that principal screenwriter Chris Provenzano and first-time feature director Aaron Schneider wanted to make.

Instead, they grafted elements of two different Horton Foote screenplays. The first, of course, is To Kill a Mockingbird. The second, more direct influence, however, is a 1972 film called Tomorrow, which Foote adapted from a William Faulkner story and which starred Duvall as a reclusive, shunned farmer who has a scandalous past involving the abused, pregnant wife of a powerful local man. (I sought out this film, which is available on DVD, in the aftermath of the 2009 film production in Durham of the Foote-scripted Main Street.) Tomorrow was an intense, sorrowful film; you really believed in the character’s ostracism, for one thing, and Duvall’s character seemed genuinely tormented and a little bit frightening, not the corn pone Grizzly Adams that he is in Get Low.

A film that looks to Foote for inspiration is worth taking seriously, but Provenzano and Schneider don’t have Foote’s upbringing in early 20th-century Texasnor his immersion in the 1950s New York theater sceneto give their synthetic concoction any authority (unlike that of Winter’s Bone). Instead, we have busy editing, overdressed sets, phony country accents, whinge-ing dobros on the soundtrack and a story that is programmed to be redemptive and satisfying.

Credit is due to the producers, however, for casting a droll, scene-stealing mugger like Bill Murray in an earnest period piece. He plays the town’s funeral director, who spots an opportunity for a big payday when he sees how much Bush is prepared to spend on his living memorial. Murray’s shifty blinking and offbeat delivery is just what the film needs to keep us interested, and yes, we perk up whenever he appears.

Another notable casting decision is the one to have an African-American actor (Bill Cobbs) play the minister who officiates at Bush’s “funeral.” While it’s important for filmmakers who set stories in the old-timey South not to treat every black character as a victim of racism, the Rev. Charles Jackson’s aura, which prevents anyone in the film from noticing that he’s black, is still a bit much. Elsewhere in the cast, Sissy Spacek brings her coal-country cred to the role of a widow who has a history with Bush.

But this is Robert Duvall’s show. Boo!