Have you ever attended a funeral and felt bad that the deceased person couldn’t attend? How often do we save the nicest things to say about an individual until after he or she is gone? Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) knows that wont happen when he dies. He’s hard pressed to find anyone with even a civil word for him while he is alive.
Living alone in the woods for nearly forty years in self-imposed isolation, the old hermit has been badgered by boys who come to throw rocks at his windows and townsfolk who propagate wild stories about his past. But now his life is coming to an end and he wants to set things straight.
Taking a wad of greasy bills into town he asks the local minister if he’ll conduct a funeral service for him. Afraid that Felix is trying to buy forgiveness rather than repent, Reverend Horton (Gerald McRaney) refuses. However Buddy (Lucas Black), an employee of the undertaker hears the old man’s request. With his boss Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) driving, Buddy heads out to the secluded cabin and gingerly approaches the trigger-happy old man.
However, Felix doesn’t want a funeral when he is dead. He wants one now, while he is still living. And he wants to invite all the residents in Caleb County to come and tell their stories about him to his face. It is something many people are hesitant to do—afraid they might be shot.
The idea sounds ludicrous to Buddy. Yet Frank’s business is dying from the lack of people dying. If he can’t find a deceased person to conduct a funeral for, the slick and slightly shady mortician is more than willing to accommodate the living. The announcement of the upcoming event causes quite a stir among the locals, especially with Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek). Years ago she fell in love with Felix. When her affections weren’t returned, she left and married a doctor. Now widowed and back in town, she yearns to rekindle their friendship. Still she senses something is keeping them apart. It is only Buddy who initially begins to see the sad and secretive man behind the old customer’s gruff demeanor.
Inspired by events surrounding the real life of Felix Breazeale, who threw his own funeral in the 1930s, this film meanders along despite the supposedly frantic funeral preparations. We know it will end with a confession when Felix’s long time friend, Reverend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) refuses to officiate without one—although we’re not sure when or how it will come, or what it will entail. For many younger family members, the film is too slow and likely too weird to engage their attention. After all, most of us don’t want to prepare for our own demise as carefully as Frank does. Still, there is a degree of compassion that begins to develop for the old man who, despite his attempt at penitence, obviously hasn’t found either happiness or peace. Nor can he pretend, even to himself, that he will be missed when he passes.
Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge who is at least given a chance to redeem himself, Felix knows his life is wasted. All he can hope for is forgiveness from those he has hurt most. While the ending may feel anticlimactic, Director Aaron Schneider settles instead for an understated and even uncomfortable honesty that may cause audience members to pause and consider what final words will be spoken about them.