As an ornery hermit who has long-inspired legend and dread among the populace of a Tennessee town, Robert Duvall, in the down-home period piece Get Low, delivers another of the ineffable and a little-bit-nutty performances that have distinguished his career.

Bearded and brooding, the actor's Felix Bush warns off trespassers with his hunting gun, communes mostly with his old mule, and then, for reasons that take a turtle-walk's while to explain, decides to have a memorial service for himself - while he's still up and breathing.

This "living funeral" is a kooky idea, to be sure, but one that the town's funeral parlor owner, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), takes to - especially after he sees the giant wad of bills that Felix has brought with him to seal the deal.

"Hermit money," Frank coos gratefully. It's the Depression. Times are hard.

Inspired by what's come to be counted as a true story, and directed in tidy fashion (perhaps too tidy) by Aaron Schneider (an Oscar winner for the 2003 short "Two Soldiers"), Get Low is a tale of atonement.

It begins with a haunting, dreamlike image: a house in the dark, in the woods, ablaze with fire, and then a lone figure running from the flames into the night.

How that scene ties in with Felix's wishes to have the townsfolk assemble to share their stories about him, or the stories they've heard tell, remains a mystery until the movie's Big Reveal: a remorseful soliloquy delivered on a stage, in a big open field, to a throng that have been offered a raffle ticket's chance to inherit Felix's house and land when he's gone.

The catch in storytelling (and filmmaking) like this is that if the payoff doesn't match the buildup, it's bound to disappoint. Duvall does his best to ensure this doesn't happen, and his climactic confession - before scores of costumed extras, and before Sissy Spacek in the role of a widow whose past fatefully intertwined with his - almost does it.

Spacek is spry and mysterious as Mattie Darrow; Murray is quiet and tricky - doubly so because the eccentricities you expect are appropriately low key. Bill Cobbs plays a preacher whose church was built by Felix (turns out his carpentry work bordered on art). And Lucas Black has a key part, as Frank's hard-pressed assistant, and as a family man who, when he was but a boy, had his own scary encounter with the old coot Felix.

The period details - the cars, the clothes, the old storefronts along Main Street - are attentively described. But it's Duvall, spooky, sly, and sad, who makes all the props and the plot twists seem real.EndText