- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

“The Merry Gentleman,” Michael Keaton’s directorial debut, might seem familiar territory for him. It has all the elements of the type of thriller in which he’s played the bad guy before (“Pacific Heights,” “Desperate Measures”). He’s taken an exciting risk, however, with this very original film. Peopled with realistic characters, yet sprinkled with otherworldly imagery, this chamber drama marks a promising second career for the 57-year-old actor.

Mr. Keaton plays Frank Logan, a hit man who seems to have a conscience. After every job, he comes close to killing himself, holding a gun to his own head or stepping to the ledge after a rooftop snipe. He’s seen in the darkness at the edge of that building by Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald), who yells at him not to jump. She only finds out later why he was there, when interviewed by detectives, and wonders if she should have let him go.

Kate has troubles of her own. She’s just moved to Chicago after fleeing her abusive husband, Michael (Bobby Cannavale). She doesn’t want to explain her black eye to her new colleagues, and she isn’t interested in starting a new relationship. Men are constantly pushing themselves on her, though — her Scottish accent is exotic — including Dave Murcheson (Tom Bastounes), one of the detectives investigating the murder.

So Frank comes into Kate’s life as a breath of fresh air. She doesn’t know he’s the man she saw, but he does. He rigs a chance meeting, helping her bring a Christmas tree into her apartment. They bond instantly over the silences that both need to get by. He saves her, she saves him — physically, but it seems they might do the same for each other spiritually. Neither can escape the past, though, not with an inquisitive detective jealous of their (so far platonic) relationship.

Redemption is one of the themes, of course, and the film, whose story spans from about Christmas to Valentine’s Day, is filled with religious imagery. When Frank first spies Kate in his gun’s scope, she looks like an angel — she was demonstrating the pose of a statue she saw in a church. It’s an arresting image. The thoughtful but spare script by Ron Lazzeretti leavens the darkness with some sly humor.

The triangle, if one can call it that, is strong at every point. Mr. Keaton manifests a whole world behind the eyes just visible under his omnipresent cap. Miss Macdonald is an underrated actress, and she easily carries off the difficult task of being reticent but telling us everything. Mr. Bastounes, also a producer on the film, should get more work after this — his cop is anything but a cliche. The same thing could be said for this haunting film, which asks important questions but leaves the viewer to uncover the answers.

★★★½

TITLE: “The Merry Gentleman”

RATING: R (language and some violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Keaton. Written by Ron Lazzeretti.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

WEB SITE: themerrygentlemanmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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