So, I’d like to write about a film that I feel is sadly overlooked: The Merry Gentleman. It was released in 2009 and stars Michael Keaton and Kelly Macdonald. It also happens to be Keaton’s directorial debut, which, along with Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, represents one of the best directorial debuts by an actor in the last 5 years.
Macdonald is Kate Frazier, a married woman who leaves her abusive husband (Bobby Cannavale) for New York. Keaton stars as Frank Logan, a depressed hitman who notices Macdonald’s character after killing his most recent victim. He believes that she witnessed his indiscretion and tracks her down, prepared to kill her. What follows I’ll leave to you to discover. Suffice it to say that the film is surprisingly moving in its portrayal and treatment of Keaton and Macdonald’s characters. There’s never a sense of artificiality to their performances, never a false moment between the characters. Keaton and Macdonald have a natural chemistry that’s neither quite romantic nor quite platonic. Their relationship is meticulously developed, and it’s surprising how much we end up caring about these people.
Special note should also be made of the handling of two of the supporting characters, both of them cops. It’s refreshing for a film of this genre to portray cops fairly and respectfully; neither detective is incompetent, clumsy or a scumbag. Instead, they’re both intelligent and dedicated policemen. Their storyline is handled just as well as Keaton and Macdonald’s, and Tom Bastounes’ Det. Murcheson is a treat to watch. Bobby Cannavale only appears in a couple of scenes, but those scenes are enough. He suggests levels of malice, intensity and fervent conviction that I never thought Cannavale was capable of displaying. Like William Hurt after his brilliant turn in A History of Violence, you won’t quite look at Cannavale the same way again.
As a director, Keaton seems to possess a natural eye for composition and camera placement; the opening credits feature some beautifully crafted location shots that put 3D films’ efforts to “create space” to shame. A critical scene in a church consists of simply one shot that dollys closer as the scene’s intensity mounts. It is here in particular that Keaton displays a natural faith in the story and its characters by just letting the people interact, and refusing to interrupt the flow and pacing with superfluous cutting and noise. I look forward to seeing what Keaton decides to direct next, as he displays a knack for telling a well-crafted story and a compelling confidence in his actors. There’s a simplicity and clarity to the images that reminds me much of Clint Eastwood’s style of directing.
I feel like this was one of 2009’s more overlooked pictures because you don’t often hear people discussing it; too many people still are most familiar with Keaton because of Batman. Its distribution was limited and for some reason it failed to attain enough strong buzz to boost theater attendance. However, despite the lack of buzz around the film, I can easily say that the film is well worth seeking out and viewing. Certainly it’s a film that will hold up well after multiple viewings.