As far as movies go Michael Keaton is one my go to guys. He’s been one of my guys ever since I saw ‘Night Shift’ in high school. Michael Keaton, despite being all of 5’7" and weighing about 140 pounds always had something going on a little dangerous underneath, no matter how silly or benign the role is he was taking on. That would include ‘Mr. Mom’. When WB announced back in the day that Michael Keaton was going to be the new Batman and the Dark Knight purist were all up in arms because they didn’t want a ‘clown’ sullying their precious comic book character I was thinking they haven’t really been paying attention to Michael Keaton if all they saw in Michael Keaton was buffoonery. Since Mr. Keaton is one of my guys I was very interested to see how Mr. Keaton’s directorial debut ‘The Merry Gentlemen’ was going play out, and I was not disappointed. But then I may be biased.
Kelly MacDonald is Kate Frazier, a very sweet woman with an abusive police officer husband (Bobby Canavale) who has decided she’s had enough and one morning skates out of town to destinations unknown. This town that Kate escapes to has another resident named Frank Logan (Keaton) who by day works as a tailor but by night is an executioner for hire, though neither occupation seems to bring Frank much joy since after each job his mind centers on ending his own life.
One day, after a particular job which by chance happened to be directly across from where Kate has taken up working as a receptionist, Frank contemplates throwing himself off the ledge until Kate sees him in the dark distance and screams, scaring Frank backwards off the ledge to safety. Now these two fractured individuals’ paths have to cross because the police, led by the amorous detective Murcheson (Tom Bastounes) believe Kate might’ve seen the man who committed this murder while Frank may or may not believe that Kate is a witness to his crime.
Frank, who seems to be knocking at deaths door regardless of his suicidal tendencies, avails himself to Kate who is in a tight spot and Kate in return avails herself to Frank in one of his moments of need and now the two have become trusted friends. Kate, for her part of the relationship, is blissfully unaware of Frank’s night job though the pesky lovesick cop does have his suspicions… and the rest of this methodically paced film casually will play out its careful hand.
I thought this was a very impressive directorial debut for Michael Keaton, a debut that I read he fell into out of necessity more so than desire. ‘The Merry Gentlemen’ takes its sweet time in getting where it needs to go and places the weight of its somewhat bare narrative on the shoulders of its impressive characterizations. Herein lies the strength of this film in the power that the characters bring to their respective performances in what adds up to essentially a three person play. Of course the heart of the movie is the relationship between Frank the hired assassin and Kate the frightened but tough woman on the run. What is it about Kate that endears Frank to her and vice versa? From where I stand it seems Frank’s feelings towards Kate are more paternal in nature as opposed to romantic. Kate is Frank’s antithesis, looking to live a life where Frank ends lives and looks to end his own life which might explain why Frank is so desperate to protect Kate.
As far as what draws Kate to Frank, this I’m not too sure about. To Kate, Frank does appear to the be the opposite of her abusive husband, kind, gentle and caring even though we know that Frank is a hundred times worse than her abusive husband, and for all we know Frank might’ve intended to kill her on that first meeting that he engineered, or even further down the line though this becomes more unlikely as movie plays on.
Another thing Keaton does well in this film, in addition to guiding his actors, is lighting himself. The shadows play off of the creases in his face making him look sinister when necessary, somber at other times and when his face is exposed to the light he seems vulnerable and pathetic. The director doesn’t privy us with any information about the character of Frank Logan that he plays, which actually works in the characters benefit in keeping him steeped in a mystery. Again, it is an impressive directorial achievement, first time out or otherwise.
I don’t think I cared for the somewhat vague, open ended conclusion of the film however. This is the kind of film that I personally felt needed a solid conclusion to the lives of these particular characters, but that’s just my personal opinion.
‘The Merry Gentlemen’ is certainly a slow moving film and if one isn’t paying attention I can see where someone might think it dull or uninvolving, but I didn’t think anything of the sort. I found it to be engrossing and intense and immensely entertaining. One of the best films I’ve seen this year.