This is another entry in what I might start to call the Fish Called Wanda films. That is, films where the quality is high, but my ability to describe the movie in a way that is persuasive to the reader is lacking. I dunno. We’ll see how I feel when I get to the bottom of the post.
This film is a loose, fictionalized retelling of a thing that happened in Tennessee almost 100 years ago. Duvall plays Felix Bush, a reclusive hermit who’s been holed up in a cabin on his property for about 40 years without venturing out into the wider world any more than absolutely necessary. Now an old man he begins to feel his encroaching mortality and decides to make his funereal plans and arrangements. His attempt to engage the local minister is unsatisfactory, but his inquiry is overheard by Buddy (Lucas Black) who arrives at the church with his wife and infant son while Bush is speaking to the minister.
Buddy works for Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) at the local funeral parlor and Frank, in a mope over a lack of business, decides to drive out and pitch their services directly to Bush. After a rough start, Buddy and Frank learn that what Bush wants isn’t so much a standard funeral, but to arrange a funeral party for himself that he can attend without having to be deceased. Buddy is dubious, but Frank sees the opportunity for profit and the plot is off and running.
Of course, Bush has an ulterior motive to his request for as many people as possible to show up and tell stories about him. From here, though, to tell much more would spoil the movie and it’s probably better to learn the truth along with Buddy and Frank. Along the way we meet a few more characters, though a bit more peripheral to the tale than the three mentioned above. Sissy Spacek plays Mattie Darrow, a woman who knew Bush in his youth, and Bill Cobbs is the Reverend Charlie Jackson whose connection with Bush (though obviously deep) is more obscure for much of the film.
There’s so much to enjoy about this movie, from the setting, actors (Murray’s performance is on par with that in Lost in Translation, though smaller), and small touches like the relationship between Buddy and his family. Maybe Black isn’t considered a great actor, but his troubled honesty vying with his desire to provide for a wife and child touches me every time. Perhaps that’s really the key to this film for me: the quest for masculine virtue, the desire to be the husband our wife believes us to be, the father our children need and deserve. What it means to succeed and fail in that endeavor.
Because at the end of the movie, we’re asked to consider what can be forgiven and what penance we must do to expunge the sins we’ve committed. It would be churlish to complain that some of the characters in this movie get it wrong, because as Christians we ought to recognize that the world will do so despite being told. The evil that we do, that others do, that we cannot escape on our own is only removed by the grace of God. Indeed, there, but for the grace of God, go I.