Michael Keaton has one of the most unusual career arcs ever. He began as a wild man stand-up, the kind of mirth maniac that typically lands a smalltime movie deal. He parlayed film success in such comedies as Night Shift and Beetlejuice. But when Tim Burton pegged him to play the Caped Crusader in his reboot of Batman, his trajectory took a path that proved both profitable and yet perplexing. There were successes (Much Ado About Nothing, The Paper) and failures (Jack Frost, where he was reduced to playing a rock star turned into a snowman - no seriously), critical acclaim (Jackie Brown) and commercial paydays (Pixar’s Cars). But nothing could have prepared him for the professional happenstance of The Merry Gentleman. Keaton originally signed on as an actor. Fate put him into the role of filmmaker as well - and believe it or not, he succeeds.
Escaping her abusive husband, young Irish girl Kate Frazier picks up and moves to Chicago. There she hopes to start a new life, free of her painful past. One night, she witnesses a man on the top of a nearby building. She’s afraid he wants to jump, and her scream shakes him back into reality. Turns out, the individual was a professional assassin who indeed was contemplating suicide. But when haberdasher turned hitman Frank Logan meets Kate, he is instantly smitten. They soon start seeing a lot of each other. This makes the police suspicious, especially recently divorced ex-alcoholic Det. Dave Murcheson. He too feels affection for Kate, but wonders why this new man has entered into her life. Things grow even more complicated when Kate’s hubby tracks her down. Claiming to be “reborn”, he wants his wife back.
Set up like a short story in both tone and approach, The Merry Gentleman is not out to make some grand cinematic statement. Though Keaton shows amazing vision as a first time director, this is not crime as some manner of glorified Greek tragedy or uber-cool familial opera. Instead, we are dealing with the lives of small timers, people who don’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things. Kate is an abused woman who can’t get the safety and security she needs from the system. Taking matters into her own hands, all she wants to do is escape. It’s something similar for Frank. Though we are never quite sure why he kills people as a sidelight (or if the tailoring business is merely a front for his felonious activities), he is clearly at the end of his rope as well. There are several silent sequences where the agony on Keaton’s face registers the world of pain he is in as well.
But it’s Det. Murcheson that ties this all together, the link between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and romantic fantasy. Even though he carries his own oversized baggage into the fray, we can see him picking apart Kate’s convoluted story about how she got her ever—present black eye. And while he barely knows Frank, he can sense something is amiss with both the mystery man’s demeanor and determination about the girl. As a kind of creepy three-way without any of the carnal considerations, The Merry Gentleman asks us to size up the potential relationships and choose up partners. Would Kate really be better off with a killer than some cop who can’t seem to control his gut instinct, especially when the hired gun seems, outside of his amoral behavior, like a genuinely lovely and needy man. It’s these avenues that Keaton must maneuver through and around, and he does so majestically.
Because he himself is an actor and starring in the film, you’d except The Merry Gentleman to be purely character driven, and for the most part, that’s true. Keaton does give his actors room to stretch and expand, and costars Kelly Macdonald and Tom Bastounes take full advantage of the space. This is especially true of our leading lady. She turns Kate into such a mousy mess, so frail and shy that she seems barely present, that the sudden spirit she shows when Frank is around is mesmerizing. Their time together is both bittersweet and biting, an inevitable confrontation always a single conversation away. But Keaton never lets things grow maudlin or clichéd. We know Kate will eventually find out about Frank. The good thing about The Merry Gentleman is that their reaction is much more important than the implied dramatic of such a scene.
Some may be put off by Keaton’s underplayed approach. This is a movie that unfolds in quiet, reflective moments, like a flower that’s petals are slowly opening and revealing. There is a lack of action, though the film still finds a way to provide some disturbing killings along the way. There is a rather inconsistent tone here, yet one imagines if original director (and screenwriter) Ron Lazzeretti had been able to see the project through, he would have handled the material differently. Keaton is playing it safe here, letting the realities play out in ways that stay true without completely mimicking the facts. We know that hitmen don’t act this way, that this kind of abused woman is more of a symbol than a solid individual, and that Det. Murcheson is pushing his advantage in ways that would compromise any case. But because The Merry Gentleman embraces those truisms, the entire project sparkles.
Keaton clearly has a future behind the lens, should destiny push him in such a direction. Indeed, it would be interesting to see what he does with a slightly broader canvas and more subtexts to consider. His eye is remarkable, keen without every being obvious or flashy. And his way with actors is, as stated before, exceptional. Still, The Merry Gentleman is not destined to be some massive mainstream hit. Instead, it’s a slight indie effort that offers innumerable charms without totally testing your patience. In a world where such novice entries would be embraced instead of marginalized, this movie would be indicative of good things to come for all involved. Sadly, something like The Merry Gentleman may simply remain an anomaly - a case where the stars all lined up right, and then glowed brightly instead of simply fading away.