January 2, 2017

The Merry Gentleman (2009)

Kate (Kelly Macdonald) flees from her abusive husband to a new life in Chicago, only to witness a murderer on the roof across from her workplace. Soon afterwards she meets Frank (Michael Keaton), a withdrawn and secretive tailor, not knowing that he is the killer that she saw.

The Merry Gentleman is a small and slightly unusual drama about a brief and precarious friendship between a wounded woman trying to form a new life and a tired hit man edging towards ending his own. It also marks the directorial debut of Michael Keaton, who stepped in after the film's original director (and screenwriter) Ron Lazeretti suffered a ruptured appendix shortly before production commenced. Even disregarding the last-minute circumstances in which Keaton took the reins, it remains an assured and confident piece of work.

Sadly the film's own merits got overlooked by mainstream audiences, with this $5 million dollar production grossing just north of $300,000 in American cinemas. It was also subsequently overshadowed by a spurious lawsuit launched by the film's producers against Keaton, claiming he did not do enough in terms of directing and promoting to guarantee the film's success. That is all a terrible shame, because The Merry Gentleman is a rock-solid small-scale drama that deserved a lot more attention and success than it received.

The premise of The Merry Gentleman suggests some kind of sexual thriller about an obsessive stalker and his hapless victim. Instead it is more about an odd, momentary friendship. We meet Kate just after she's been assaulted by her police officer husband. She waits for him to leave for work, packs a bag, and gets out of town for good. Jumping forward a few weeks, we find her working a receptionist job at a Chicago law firm while giving a different explanation every time for why she's sporting the remnants of a vicious black eye. She is closed off, lonely and distrustful. Kelly Macdonald takes a fairly standard (albeit sadly believable) character and gives her depth and complexity. In a nice touch she is able to keep her own accent, with Kate written as a Scottish immigrant to the USA.

Michael Keaton plays Frank with a typical intensity, showcasing his intense piercing eyes to great effect. Frank is an oddly silent character for Keaton, who usually performs his roles with a manic energy and rapid-fire dialogue. This character forces him to slow down and express a lot more of his emotions and intent in non-verbal and physical ways. He does a great job of it; he really is one of America's most underrated actors. Frank is a messy wreck of a person too: he's a professional killer slowly getting sicker and sicker with pneumonia while constantly vacillating over whether or not to simply commit suicide to get out of his inescapable, horrible life.

In his role as director, Keaton keeps a deliberately slow and measured pace, and this works tremendously to the film's advantage. These two fragile characters get room to develop and breathe, and their tentative friendship is advanced slowly enough as to feel completely believable. This is a deliberately small story that keeps its focus on people rather than scenes of violence or action.

Tom Bastounes is surprisingly good as Murcheson, a Chicago homicide detective who attempts to court Kate romantically while simultaneously (and unwittingly) investigating Frank's murders. Bastounes was also a producer on the film, investing money in return for a key supporting role to advance his acting career. That is usually a recipe for disaster, but here it actually pays off. Bobby Cannavale has a small but critical role as Kate's abusive husband: you know when the film begins that he is inevitably going to track her down, but where his narrative arc takes him from there is much more of a surprise.

This is a nicely played, modest drama that is well photographed and carefully paced. Lawsuits and petty recriminations reportedly turned Keaton off the film completely; he effectively refused to promote it when finally released. That is a shame, because he shows a solid foundation for a directorial career, and it would be interesting to see what he might create given more experience and a couple of additional features under his belt.

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