Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Director Aaron Schneider’s southern gothic tale of guilt and atonement is most praiseworthy for the wonderful cast he has assembled, demonstrating again that the quality of a film is not measured by its cost, number of explosions or spectacular CGI effects. Based loosely on a Tennessee legend about a hermit set during the 1930s, the film brings together Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, and Bill Cobbs, all who make us believe the somewhat problematic story.
The film opens at night with a house on fire. Then a figure emerges, his back ablaze as he runs into the darkness. Next, apparently in the present, a boy throws a rock through the window of a tumbledown cabin and runs off. A heavily bearded man (think Smith Brothers Cough drops) carrying a shotgun finds the boy in the barn, but lets him go. He then nails up a hand carved sing that warns, “No damn trespassing. Beware of mule.” The old man is then seen hitching up his mule and driving his wagon into town. He is Felix Bush (Duvall), a lonely hermit and the subject of many lurid tales circulated by fearful townspeople. We presume that he is the shadowy figure we saw earlier running from the fire.
People stare at him as his wagon slowly proceeds through the street, all of them curious and suspicious. Felix stops and enters the church just ahead of a young couple with their baby. Placing a wad of dirty bills between him and the minister, he says that he wants a funeral. But this is not just any ordinary funeral, he tells the startled pastor, because he wants to have it soon while he is still alive. He wants to hear first-hand the stories that people have been telling about him for thirty years. When the minister raises concerns and mouths the usual pieties, Felix picks up his wad and stalks out of the church.
Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), the young man with the wife and baby back at the church tells funeral parlor director Frank Quinn (Murray) about Felix’s request. Buddy is Quinn’s new assistant, and his boss has been complaining about how business is so bad, so few people dying these days The two drive out to Felix’s, Quinn sending Buddy to convince the old hermit that they can provide the funeral party.
Buddy overcomes Felix’s suspicions, and the three meet at the funeral parlor where Quinn shows Felix his array of caskets. Felix disappoints him by declining to buy one (and later we see why). Soon the shaggy bearded Felix is getting a haircut, though this is amusingly delayed by Quinn so that he can have him photographed “before” for the advertising poster: trimmed and shaved, people might not recognize him. I love the moment when the photographer asks Quinn if he wants the stern-looking Felix to smile, and the undertaker replies, “That is his smile.” The question of how Felix will get people to want to come to the party is answered when he goes on a local radio talk show and during the interview announces that people can send in $5 for a raffle ticket, the prize being his 300 acres of prime timber. And does the money come pouring in, with Felix confronting Quinn concerning his trustworthiness.
Buddy becomes the old man’s frequent companion as he drives him around on errands. We can see that he is growing fonder of the old coot with each incident, his boyish smile growing ever wider with each new episode. They even travel up to Illinois so that Felix can talk with an old friend and convince him to come and speak about him at the funeral party. Charlie Jackson (veteran actor Bill Cobb) is glad to see Felix, but does not yield to his plea to come down and speak. We understand that he knows Felix’s terrible secret, tied to that nighttime fire, and he wants no part of it.
Meanwhile Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), who has returned after a long absence to live in her hometown, has heard the interview with Felix on the radio. She goes out to his farm, and they renew their friendship—and we suspect, more than just this. Agreeing to stay for supper, she settles in for a pleasant evening, until she notices the photograph of a young woman on his wall. We had seen this several times, Felix apparently treasuring it—and we now connect it with Mattie. Upset by it, she gets up and leaves, despite her host’s pleas to stay.
How all this leads up to the funeral party with which Felix apparently hopes to achieve some kind of relief from his guilt makes for fascinating viewing. As I wrote above, the story at times seems far fetched, but the performances of everyone are so engaging that we never think of this while the film is unreeling. As a character study of a man unable to forgive or love himself, the film is thoroughly enjoyable. A church group could have a great time probing the meaning of guilt and atonement. Is it enough, as James writes, that we confess our sins—do we need, as Felix, apparently believes, more than just confession?
For reflection/Discussion Spoilers below.
1. Have you lived in a community where stories were told about a recluse or unusual person? Why do you think people make up stories about someone who keeps strictly to him/herself? A “need to know,” or an abhorrence of a vacuum of information about another person?
2. How do your opinion and/or understanding of Felix change as the plot unfolds? How does he show that he does not like himself?
3. How do you feel about Quinn? Compare what you think is his attitude toward Felix with Buddy’s? In what ways does Quinn appear like the funeral directors in Jessica Mitford’s classic study The American Way of Death? How does he change during the course of the story?
4. What do you think of Felix’s solution to entice people to come to his party?
5. Who do you think at first hit Buddy on the head during the night? Whom do we suspect took the money from the coffin? Were you relived to learn that things were not as they seemed to be?
6. How does Felix’s description of his existence as being “in prison” well describe it? (Those who have seen The Mission might think how Rodriguez (played by Robert DiNiro) voluntarily shut himself up in a prison cell after he killed his brother in a duel over a woman.)
7. How did Quinn, according to Charlie Jackson, make an attempt to atone for what he did? (Those who have seen an even better “atonement” story The Fisher King might recall and compare how the guilt-ridden Jack in that story tried to atone at first.)
8. How does guilt over some terrible deed fracture or break apart our soul, hence our desire for atonement? Much has been made of the components of this word: at-one-ment, the need to be at one, with ourselves, our neighbor, and our God.
9. How does Christianity say at-onement comes to us? Through our own efforts, or as a gift: an achievement, or moment of grace bestowed on us? (Referring again to The Mission, recall the apt symbol of Rodriguez’s transgression: how was he finally freed from his guilt so that he could leave the cumbersome burden behind?)
10. Rev. Jackson tells the crowd, “We like to think that right and wrong are miles apart…” How is he right i
n pointing out that they are closer together than we think? Note how Jesus pointed out that even a good thing, such as praying or giving to charity, can become sinful (see Matt. 6:1-6)