Michael Keaton gives an intriguingly subdued performance in The Merry Gentleman, his glacially paced, almost perversely understated directorial debut. It’s a film that never shouts when it can whisper cryptically. Its somber, wintery tone is one of its greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses. If ever a film needed a double shot of espresso and a swift kick in the caboose, it’s this one. At best, the film is hypnotic; at worst, it challenges—no, dares—audiences not to fall asleep.
An eternity away from the madcap tomfoolery and verbal gymnastics that defined early roles like Night Shift and Beetlejuice, a sad-eyed, haunted Keaton stars as a suicidal, alcoholic hitman whose inner light was extinguished long ago. His fortunes change when he embarks on a tentative romance with a plucky office worker played by No Country For Old Men’s Kelly Macdonald, who first spies him as a shadowy figure teetering at the edge of a building. Macdonald has dark secrets of her own, and a bevy of awkward would-be suitors clamoring for her attention. These include an overly solicitous co-worker; a chubby, insecure detective (Tom Bastounes) who badly wants their professional relationship to become personal; and nutso ex-husband/Jesus freak Bobby Cannavale.
Cannavale’s twitchy, hammy performance and the appearances of Macdonald’s generically sassy, man-crazy office buddy briefly puncture the film’s diligently cultivated mood of resignation, but otherwise, Gentleman is a screamingly quiet film distinguished by a haunting score and terrific lead performances. Macdonald offers a winning combination of gritty determination and squirmy vulnerability as a woman who reluctantly lets down her defenses to embrace another battered soul, and Keaton creates an indelible character with a miniscule amount of dialogue. The Merry Gentleman is yet another downbeat independent film about a pair of knocked-around loners finding solace and comfort in each other; while it begins, proceeds, and ends with a world-weary shrug, at least it stays consistent.