This powerfully insightful film begins with a house in flames, and a man running from it with his own clothes on fire; for the next hour and a half, we’re left to wonder how this incident relates to the life of Felix Bush (Robert Duval) who has spent the last 40 years as a hermit, concealing himself from the world and shunning contact. Only in the final moments of the film do we understand that Felix was the burning man who fled; for all the years since, the flames of guilt and shame have been consuming him.
In the second sequence, a small boy throws a rock through the window at Felix’s house; when Felix pursues the boy into the barn, his face remains hidden in shadow — a perfect image for his faceless existence, a lifetime during which he has not wanted to be “seen.” As do so many people crippled with shame and guilt, Felix defends against those experiences by hiding from view.
At the same time, he lives in self-imposed exile as a punishment for the “crime” he committed. For years, he has tried to atone for his deeds through this imprisonment; now, at the end of his life, Felix finds that the only way to cool the flames of his conscience is to do the very thing he has avoided all these years — to reveal himself in public. And so he plans a “funeral party,” to be held while he is still alive. He hires funeral home owner Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) to mount the funeral.
At first, still unable to come to grips with his need publicly to atone, Felix pretends he wants others to tell stories about him at the funeral. He also gets a haircut and a new suit to look his best. When Buddy comments, “I wouldn’t know you, Sir,” Felix replies, “Well, maybe the Devil won’t either. This might just work out.”
Felix continues to hide and hopes he won’t have to face the full gravity of his deeds. As the plot unfolds, however, it becomes increasingly clear that he can no longer hide. Felix needs to speak out, and in particular, he needs to speak to Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), a woman he once courted. When she appears in his barn, and he asks if she’d like to see the rest of his place, Mattie replies, “Do you want me to?” He tells her, “Yes, ma’am, I do.” It is more than his property that he wants Mattie to “see.” Twice he tries to tell her the truth — first during supper in his own cabin and later in her parlor — but it is only at the funeral party that he finally musters the courage to speak.
On the curmudgeonly surface, Felix appears to be a misanthrope; on the inside, he feels himself to be a very bad man. Buddy, the funeral-director-in-training, appears to Felix to be his antithesis. “I guess for every one like me,” he tells Buddy, “there’s one like you, son.” This view betrays the operation of splitting, one of the primary defense mechanisms: so tormented is Felix by his guilt and shame that he disavows his own goodness and projects it into Buddy. Whatever his sins, and however anti-social he may appear, there’s evidence throughout the film that Felix is also capable of kindness and loving emotion: a photograph of a woman hangs on his cabin wall; whoever she is or was, he clearly loves her deeply.
His manner toward Mattie is tender and full of respect. He’s also a master craftsman and single-handedly built a magnificent church for the Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs). Despite all the tales about his anti-social and violent behavior, Felix has a “good” side, as well.
He also has a savage, implacable conscience: once we finally hear his tale at the funeral party, we feel much more understanding and forgiveness toward Felix than he can feel for himself. In the events he narrates, there seems plenty of guilt to go around, but Felix believes it is “all my fault.”
His inability to let himself off the hook stems not only from guilt for the wrongs he committed — toward Mattie and her family — but also from profound shame. After recounting the events of that night when the house went up in flames, he says, “I’m so ashamed. I’m so ashamed.” He then adds (directing his words to Mattie), “I swear to you, that if I [did such-and-such], everything I know about myself is a lie.” Of course one crime (if such it be) does not negate everything of value in one’s character, but for Felix, because of his brutal, intractable conscience, the possibility that he might have committed this ultimate misdeed destroyed all self-respect and self-regard. He has been punishing himself ever since.
One of the many lessons to be learned from this film is one I often repeat to my psychotherapy clients: the pain and the feelings themselves are rarely the problem; it’s the defenses we use against them that cause us so much misery. For the past 40 years, Felix has avoided owning up to the truth. He may have tried to assuage his guilt and satisfy the pangs of his conscience through self-imposed imprisonment, but living as a hermit was also a way to hide from shame. As a result, no amount of “punishment” could do, no sentence of solitary confinement was long enough; he could never put his mind at ease. Only through publicly acknowledging his guilt and facing his personal shame could he find lasting peace.
He finally tells the whole truth and asks Mattie for forgiveness. If he receives it, he adds, he won’t “mind dying for real next time.” Mattie does, in fact, forgive him and when his final guests leave that day, he is a man visibly at peace, ready to face his own death.
Photo by dvs, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.