A recent video by animation virtuoso Harry Partridge was a broadside slap to the face of Tim Burton, taking potshots at his repetitive kookiness and stale flights of tiresome fancy. Halfway through the short, a mystified Johnny Depp, lost in the director’s purple imagination, vows to escape, only to be told ‘those who try are never heard from again…’, only for the shot to pan to a statue-in-silhouette, a memorial of Michael Keaton.
It was certainly a bizarre landscape for those scant years when Keaton was close to being an A-list actor, but apart from appearing as the same character in two Elmore Leonard adaptations (Jackie Brown and Out Of Sight), he has vanished off the radar somewhat. The Merry Gentleman is his directorial debut, and is the kind of unassuming, low-budget, performance-led piece that suits a first-timer.
Kelly Macdonald leads as Kate Frazier, a Scot in Chicago. Working in an office by day, she leaves one evening to see Frank Logan (Michael Keaton) standing on the edge of the facing building’s roof, seemingly ready to jump. Her scream convinces him otherwise, but this act might have been a little hasty, as Frank, despite the suicidal streak, is a fierce hitman.
The Merry Gentleman has moments of genius, and its immediate premise is its most intriguing attribute. It plays like a refreshing mix of trauma-laced drama, shady thriller and urban fairytale, shot with a slow-moving, tentative pace.
Kate is a young woman encircled by men, with an abusive estranged husband (Bobby Cannavale) lurking in the ether and a lonely cop (Tom Bastounes) vying for her attention. However, it is Frank that prevails, gently insinuating his way into her life after a number of happy accidents. It’s a corny set-up, but it is sold well by the performances, with Macdonald making sweet, charming magic out of cheap lines (“You just might be the sweetest man I’ve ever met.”), and Keaton flipping the coin, providing a restrained, brooding contrast. He is kept at arm’s length throughout, floating through the piece with an ever-present scowl.
They are a couple united by a common awkwardness with the city around them. Unfortunately, this character piece about the cautious relationship between a sheepish, wounded woman and a tormented, deceitful man soon shifts into a more plot-driven affair, hammering down the thriller-esque aspects into a workable tale of suspicion, obsession and violence.
The characters themselves seem to freeze in place, as their developing relationships are dropped in favour of the narrative. In the process, this central story of unlikely love in the metropolis – and its transformative powers – gets lost in forced conflict, heavy-handed religious references (Christmas looms large over the story, and a local church is a recurring location) and constant repeated lines about angels and devils.
Keaton, however, proves to be a canny director, working with cinematographer Chris Seager to create a warm and intimate look for the film, with Chicago seeming at once stark, uninviting and postcard pretty.
It is at its best during Frank’s killings, which are cold and clinical, and communicated with the most minimal of means, with one punching in the bouncy holiday song Jingle Jangle Christmasat the point of gunshot.
While Keaton may have retreated from Burtonland to the world of indie film production, he has come back bearing The Merry Gentleman, a pleasant, if ultimately a little uninspiring, gem.
A 15 minute ‘Making Of’ featurette combines on-set footage and interviews. While there is no face time with Keaton or Macdonald, a significant chunk of the piece is given over to watching the first-time director at work. Interesting, but unsubstantial.
The Merry Gentleman is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.