Michael Keaton’s directorial debut is smart, opaque, fascinating.
The Merry Gentleman is a film that will frustrate you. You will sometimes wish it moved faster and that it would open itself more, and reveal something besides only the tantalizing amount of information that its very shrewd and deliberate script wants to divulge. The ending will likely haunt you, not in a satisfying sense but rather in a way that compels you to make sense of its painstakingly-wrought ambiguity. And you might actually love the film for all of those reasons.
Directed by Michael Keaton – an intelligent leading man long overdue for a major comeback - from a script by relative unknown Ron Lazzeretti (The Opera Lover), the film often manages literary feats of structure and innovation while remaining grounded in a concrete sense of place and tone. Keaton also stars as Frank Logan, a solitary and antisocial tailor, drowning in depression and guilt, who also (though we’re never told why) moonlights as a contract hit man. Yet he is not the real star of the film. That place is occupied – gracefully, charmingly - by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (No Country For Old Men) as Kate Frazier, a woman escaping her abusive policeman husband by escaping to a nondescript (though vaguely Chicago) major city.
Their solitary existences bring them together at Christmastime, which anyone with depression can tell you is the cruelest time of the year by far. Following a hit on someone in Kate’s office building, Frank attempts to throw himself off a neighboring rooftop, after glimpsing her in a wonderfully constructed moment of grace. But she sees him instead and screams, averting his suicide. Later, the two formally meet as Frank shows her a small kindness, and their friendship begins to percolate. Kate is the type of person you suspect would rather not risk inconveniencing anyone with her company. She’s strong but vulnerable to even the basic ruthlessness that most people take for granted, and her attempts at isolation only draw other lonely souls into her path, including an emotionally needy co-worker (Darlene Hunt) and Dave Murcheson, the police detective (Tom Bastounes) investigating the shooting.
But she’s drawn to Frank, probably as much because he asks nothing of her and doesn’t seem prepared to offer anything for which he might expect gratitude down the line. “I think we’re good for one another,” Kate tells him, and when minutes later she explains, “You’re possibly the sweetest man I’ve ever met” you get a sense of how bad her life must have been to that point. The script moves ahead in time, cleverly, and there’s a sense as spring rolls around that the two are making progress helping one another. Then of course their respective pasts close in on them. Kate’s husband (Bobby Cannavale) tracks her down, spouting born-again Christian rhetoric that, not surprisingly, makes the skittish Kate even more terrified. Meanwhile Murcheson and his partner dog the shooting investigation as well as the apparent suicide of one of Frank’s associates. Frank is unafraid, permanently removing Kate’s husband from her life and continuing his tailoring business.
The pivotal scenes arrive as Murcheson visits Frank’s store. The two men size each other up, instant dislike getting submerged by going-through-the-motions polite conversation. “I tend to see the suit, not the person inside it,” Frank tells him, a pretty unsubtle way of explaining that life is often meaningless to him. Murchison ambles off, ready to confront Kate – the object of his affection as well as a potential witness and accomplice alike – of his concerns. His clumsy, well-intentioned effort pushes Kate and Frank into a confrontation that’s minimal on dialogue but no less emotionally resonant. Kate is ready for them to admit the truth about each other but Frank’s not there yet, setting up an ending that leaves more questions than it’s prepared to answer.
Even when playing the comic buffoon (Beetlejuice, Mr. Mom), Keaton the actor has always prioritized reserve, holding something back from the audience that gave his characters nuance and depth. In directing a film his greatest flaw may be following that impulse with too much trust. The film is slow-paced, and there are times when the script begs for elaboration – even a hint or line of dialogue would suffice. And as good as Lazzeretti’s script is at building suspense and giving its characters lines worth saying out loud, it also often explains something (such as in Kate’s dialogue mentioned above) that’s obvious to anyone paying attention. As the film dares its audience to think, the occasional lapse in artistry feels too much like “gimme” questions. The narrative skips ahead at least once, leaving details in its timeline unresolved.
But these complaints are petty grievances. Keaton knows how to direct himself and (with one exception) his actors, mining fascinating complexities out of virtually every role. MacDonald gives Kate layers of anxiety and innocence, letting her be paranoid in one scene and carefree the next. Bastounes is exceptional as the self-sabotaging Murheson, a man at once reaching out for someone’s warmth but retreating into his police authority whenever challenged. He’s the third part of Frank and Kate’s lonely constellation, dimmer by comparison but no less sincere despite his lack of self-awareness. Only Cannavale fails to impress, bringing too much ham to his rambling fire-and-brimstone monologue. We understand that his character is a petty and vile man because Kate has already sold us on the idea. Cannavale’s overacting only sets her own efforts back.
And the ending: vague, inconclusive, maddeningly open to interpretation. There are dozens of pat endings possible, and if you’ve been watching movies for any length of time you can imagine probably half that many without really trying. If the last five minutes are flawed, they’re still not enough to undermine the beauty and intelligence of the 105 minutes preceding them. The Merry Gentleman is in that sense daring right until its wide-open end.