Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
We're asked to take Felix Bush on faith, and since he's played in "Get Low" by Robert Duvall, we must. Duvall is authentic right down to the bone, and lends his credibility to almost every character he plays. Felix requires a lot of credibility. He's a backwoods hermit with the kind of beard that suggests he took a box of Smith Brothers Cough Drops into the barber and said, "Give me one of those." He lives with a mule, a shotgun and his secrets.
The film opens with a murky scene of a farmhouse on fire and a man running away through the night. Who could this man be? Given the Law of Economy of Characters, it must be Felix, and therefore at the end the movie, he must account for this scene. Since Felix is an ornery rascal, it follows as the night the day that by the end, he will be downright amenable to folks. We don't require him to shave off his beard, but he obliges.
In the present (the 1930s), Felix learns of the death of an old friend, and this inspires him to make his own plans. He makes a rare visit to town to meet with the undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and explain how he wants to "get low." He plans his burial plot, his stone, his farewell sendoff and even the designated speaker. He intends this all to happen now, while he's still alive and can enjoy getting the value for his money.
Frank, who is oleaginous even for a movie undertaker, has a fresh-faced young assistant, Buddy (Lucas Black), who has a wife and baby, and ends up as Felix's unofficial minder. Frank dreams up a real corker of a Getting Low party and thinks many of the townsfolk will come, and so Felix gets a new spring in his step. He meets for the first time in years Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), who he used to be sweet on, and Frank even pulls Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) out of his hat — or at least out of southern Illinois. The reverend may be the only man alive who knows what happened on that dark night of the farmhouse fire.