Another decade, another Robert Duvall movie with a religious connection.
In the 1980s, Duvall won an Oscar for playing an alcoholic country singer who finds God — and a second chance at a family and a career — in Tender Mercies. In the 1990s, he was nominated for yet another Oscar for his portrayal of a Pentecostal preacher on the lam in The Apostle — a film that he wrote, directed and financed with his own money.
And now, there is Get Low — which technically belongs to the 2000s, since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival almost a year ago.
The film is based very, very loosely on the true story of a hermit who threw himself a “living funeral” in the 1930s. In the film, the hermit in question — named Felix Bush, and played by Duvall – says he wants to hear what sort of stories the “mourners” will tell about him. But as the big event looms near, it becomes clear that he has a story of his own to tell.
When Felix first decides to throw the funeral party, he approaches a minister (Gerald McRaney) who asks him if he has “made peace with God.” Felix refuses to answer, so the minister continues: “You can’t buy forgiveness. It’s free, but you do have to ask for it.”
Felix, however, feels no such obligation. As he says at one point, people “keep telling me to ask Jesus for forgiveness, [but] I never did nothing to him.” So he leaves the church, and turns to a funeral director (Bill Murray, deadpan as ever) to make the party happen.
To help him tell his story, he turns to yet another minister (Bill Cobbs) who knows a few things about his past; but even here, Felix insists that he find redemption on his own terms.
The screenplay was written by Chris Provenzano (Mad Men) and C. Gaby Mitchell (Blood Diamond). But Get Low began as a story by a Lutheran pastor named Scott Seeke, who heard about the real-life hermit from his in-laws; and the film has been aggressively promoted to the Christian media.
It’s interesting, though, to see how the secular coverage has sometimes burrowed more deeply into the movie’s theology than the Christian coverage has.
For example, Christianity Today, in its interview with Duvall, said very little about the substance of this film beyond the fact that it has “themes of forgiveness and redemption”; but National Public Radio, in its own interview with Duvall, stressed that the movie is about “rejecting cheap, religious grace, and seeking the forgiveness of the people you have loved – and hurt.”
Matters are further complicated by the fact that Felix’s “confession,” when it finally comes, consists largely of describing how someone else did some very bad things – as a response to a transgression of Felix’s, that might not seem so bad to the average moviegoer.
It’s obvious that Felix himself feels a lot of guilt over what happened; and the film is a subtly acted and moving portrayal of one man trying to forgive himself, after a lifetime of isolation from the broader community. But it’s striking that, despite all the religious players involved in the making and reception of this movie, the film ultimately doesn’t have much use for faith.
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There are Bible movies, and then there are Bible movies with a twist. Here are three newly announced films that belong to the latter group.
First, Lionsgate Films is in pre-production on a modernized version of the life of Jesus, called In Our Time. According to the film’s website, Jesus will be played by DJ Perry (who recently had a supporting role in TBN’s The Book of Ruth: Journey of Faith); and Nicodemus will be played by Rance Howard, father of Oscar-winning director Ron Howard.
The website also lists King Herod Antipas among the film’s characters, though it’s not clear how someone like that would fit into a 21st century setting.
Second, Adrien Brody is in talks to play a hippie named Joseph, while British pop star Pixie Lott plays his pregnant girlfriend Mary, in Sweet Baby Jesus. It’s a comedy set in the 1970s, about a couple who wander into an American town called Bethlehem looking for a place to stay – thereby setting off rumours that the Second Coming is on its way.
I’ll never understand why so many movies assume that the Second Coming of Christ will be just like the first, with a pregnant mother and everything. But the 1970s were a genuinely crazy time, full of cults and apocalyptic expectations; so who knows, the film might have something noteworthy to say. I just won’t get my hopes up too high.
Finally, Will Smith has reportedly signed on to produce and star in The Legend of Cain, an “epic” movie about Abel’s murderous older brother. And this time, he’ll be a vampire.