Merry Gentleman, The (United States, 2009)

May 05, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Merry Gentleman, The Poster

The Merry Gentleman, which represents the feature directorial debut of actor Michael Keaton, is a meditation on loneliness and about the things we do to fill up those big, empty gaps in life. Anchoring the film, which is driven more by characters than plot, are fine performances by Keaton and Kelly Macdonald and a screenplay in which the pauses between words are as meaningful as the words themselves. The style is unhurried and spare and, with an emphasis on religious iconography, the movie drives home the point that good and evil are perhaps not as easily defined as one might think. Perhaps those concepts are established in the eye of the beholder.

The Merry Gentleman focuses on two individuals who are presented primarily in the present. We know almost nothing about their pasts - who they are and what they did before the first frame of the film. Keaton is Frank Logan, a low-rent hit man who is suffering from depression, is physically ill, and frequently considers suicide. Macdonald, making her first appearance since No Country for Old Men, is Kate Frazier, a battered wife who flees from her abusive husband, Michael (Bobby Cannavale), to start a new life. Their paths cross when Frank, after making a successful hit, contemplates jumping to his death from the roof of a building and Kate, seeing him from the sidewalk below, yells for him not to do it. She doesn't see his face but he sees her and, fascinated by her, he contrives to meet her at her apartment building soon after. It's Christmastime and neither has friends or family to spend the holiday with, so they end up sharing some time together in Frank's hospital room, where he ends up after collapsing on Kate's doorstep from pneumonia. They form a tentative friendship that is neither strictly platonic nor romantic.

While the world at large might view Frank, a man who kills for money, as "evil," Kate - who is oblivious to his profession - sees him as a kind, gentle individual. The scenes between the two characters are always calm and quiet, but it's easy to sense the bond between them. They do not love each other in the conventional sense. There are no kisses or embraces and there's no sexual chemistry, but each completes the other in a metaphysical way. They are kindred spirits who somehow find each other.

To the extent that there are complications, they are provided by a police detective (Tom Bastounes) who is investigating a man killed by Frank. He, like the two leads, is a lonely individual and is looking for companionship. He tries dating Kate but makes a mess of their first dinner and now watches over her protectively, perhaps hoping for a second chance. And her husband is not out of the picture. He tracks her down and professes to be a new man, having been introduced to Jesus by a priest.

The film has a gloomy, almost haunting tone. Those scenes that take place during daylight hours happen under an angry winter sky with clouds blotting out the sun and leafless trees standing starkly against the white backdrop. Keaton and Macdonald occupy their characters completely, providing strong portrayals of individuals who will not give up their secrets but who are nevertheless groping for some sort of human contact. The ending is ambiguous and can be interpreted in one of many ways. This lack of definition feels right for this project, which is never about absolutes or revelations, but it may frustrate viewers who want some sort of closure.

It has been argued that for characters to be three-dimensional, they must have a past, a present, and a future, not to mention an arc. The Merry Gentleman offers a counter-argument for those who would dispute this. Frank and Kate have arcs, but they are limited, and one could believe they aren't that far at the end from where they are at the beginning. And Keaton the director is uninterested in anything but the present. Especially in their interaction with each other, there is no past and there is no future. The Merry Gentleman is precise in its depiction of these characters and worth seeing for anyone who finds this sort of relationship, ephemeral though it may be, worth 90 minutes spent in a movie theater.

Merry Gentleman, The (United States, 2009)

Director: Michael Keaton
Cast: Michael Keaton, Kelly Macdonald, Tom Bastounes, Darlene Hunt, Bobby Cannavale
Screenplay: Ron Lazzeretti
Cinematography: Chris Seager
Music: Ed Shearmur
U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Company
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2009-05-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1