"When We Were Gone Astray" - Movie Review Essay: The Merry Gentleman (2008)

"When We Were Gone Astray"
by Jen Johans

Hovering on a Chicago rooftop in the darkness looking out, the first time he sees her, she's standing in the light. Arms outstretched like the statue of Jesus she'd just seen — that she tells her co-worker made her want to run into the deity's arms — her pose in the window across the street from where the suicidal hitman is positioned seems to have the same effect on the man. After Frank (Michael Keaton) takes out his target in an office nearby like a sniper, he scans the windows of her building once again. Looking for Kate (Kelly Macdonald), he discovers that she's already gone . . . or at least, that's what he thought.

Standing on the ledge of the building in his second suicide attempt of the day, Frank finds himself distracted from violence yet again by those same arms and that girl. Seeing her under a streetlight this time, she looks up to where he's standing, senses his intent, and screams — causing him to fall backwards onto the rooftop to safety — as the sound pierces through the falling snow into the night sky.

Having fled an abusive husband in a different state in a brave attempt to leave the darkness of her past behind, Kate is the type of person who usually keeps her head down. New to Chicago, she seeks solace in the peaceful little things, like the gentle kiss of winter on her outstretched arms in an evening snow or a Christmas tree she picks up on a whim, to which she can't wait to add decorations and lights.

The only person she encounters who intuits enough about her past not to ask about the remnants of a bruise from her husband's fist still hovering around her eye, after the events of that fateful night where she saved a nondescript man on a ledge, Frank wants nothing more than to meet his guardian angel. Posing as a man visiting friends in her building since there's no way she can place his face from that brief glance in the dark, Frank tries to return the favor in The Merry Gentleman by freeing Kate from her newly purchased Christmas tree that's pinned her to the ground.

"I found a girl under a tree," Frank muses in their first real conversation. Chiding himself that it's dumb, he explains, "you know, you find presents under a tree; I found a girl under a tree." Smiling, getting it — and cutting through the awkwardness like the people pleaser she is, but this time an interested one — Kate tells him with a little laugh, "well, you must've been a very good boy."

Given the way that the man who poses as a gentleman's tailor by day really earns his living, obviously nothing could be further from the truth. But yet, quiet, tender, slow, and protective, something about the way he is with Kate makes it clear that he yearns to be the man reflected in her eyes, especially when she informs him, "so far we've been pretty good for one another," after only seeing him three (okay, really four) times.

Instead of leaving the tree in the dumpster after Christmas, he takes it with them on a long romantic drive at sundown to burn the once majestic tree in a field. While watching this symbolic thing that brought them together die together in a Malick-worthy mercy kill — without even understanding the dark irony about his expertise in the area — Kate tells Frank in earnest, "You just might be the sweetest man I've ever met." And in moments like this, even in spite of everything we've witnessed thus far from the man onscreen, we're inclined to agree.

But like a candle that burns down to the wick, you can only stay in the light for so long before the darkness returns. Bogged down by real world pressures such as a love quadrangle instead of a triangle, in The Merry Gentleman, Kate is pursued not only by the right man on the wrong side of the law but two wrong men — cops — on the right side of the law. Wrong does come in varying degrees, however, in this existential, modern noirish fairy tale. When the first man with a badge in Gentleman — her abusive husband played by Bobby Cannavale — shows up to beg for another chance, the second man with a badge, Dave Murcheson (Tom Bastounes) is there to answer her 911 call.

A would-be romantic suitor that Frank inadvertently brings into her life, Kate meets Dave early into the film when she calls the police about the unidentified man on the ledge and he connects it to the contract killing Frank had carried out just before he almost jumped. Taking her to dinner under the guise of following up on her report, unlike Frank who says only what he means, when that is, he speaks at all, Dave feels the need to fill every second of silence that passes between them. Telling her what she wants to hear, and then belying his words with his actions, it doesn't take long for Kate to realize that she can't believe much of what's coming out of the Chicago police officer's mouth after all.

Layering in spiritual symbolism, The Merry Gentleman knows that while some viewers will respond to the film's undeniably christian iconography with Kate-like adoration, others — like Kate's co-worker who says she isn't a religious person but she is a romantic — will not. And to its immense credit, this dark yet understated love story about good, evil, peace, and trees respects and appeals to both types of film fans.

Sophisticated, subtle, and suitably somber, but with sparks of dry wit, old-fashioned grace, and Kelly Macdonald's incandescent aura suddenly bringing even the most serious of scenes to sparklingly buoyant life, this ensemble drama is far more concerned with people than plot. Adhering to the lyrics of the eponymous Christmas carol, it fixates on those most in need of "comfort and joy" who've "gone astray."

Understanding that behavior is far more interesting than just talking to combat silence, in his bold screenplay for The Merry Gentleman, Ron Lazzeretti takes a cue from his often quiet main character to incorporate dialogue only when he must. Augmented by the chemistry of the couple at the film's core and directed with sensitivity by Michael Keaton in his feature filmmaking debut, Lazzeretti's decision, it seems, was well worth the risk. Although I encountered the film for the first time back when I covered the Phoenix Film Festival in the spring of '09, Keaton's Gentleman has continued to fascinate me on Blu-ray a full decade later.

A highly verbal actor whose skill and speed in delivering paragraphs of comedic dialogue with athletic precision has delighted audiences since the 1980s, it's both incredibly compelling and initially, a little startling to see Michael Keaton dial back his energy and bravado. In a daring turn that's wonderfully out of his comfort zone, he moves down from a Ron Howard or Harold Ramis ten — not to a Tim Burton five — but a mostly silent one.

Emotionally and physically ill at the start of the film, which was shot in just under a month, Keaton's Frank finds himself slowly coming to life for the girl who saves him twice. But still, given the gravity of things that have been left unsaid, most importantly, where Kate really saw Frank for the first time — arms stretched wide, with falling snow between them instead of her meet cute tree — the film's intelligent enough to know that these two people can't just ride off into the sunset.

An arthouse standby with the ability to infuse even minor roles — like the wife in No Country for Old Men — with goodness and warmth, Kelly Macdonald has long been one of my favorite actresses. I'm especially fond of her major turns in Two Family House (which I loved so much that I actually programmed and hosted a screening of it in Scottsdale), as well as the acclaimed yet under seen The Girl in the Cafe, which shares a cinematographer with Merry's DP Chris Seagar. Thematically similar to Gentleman and propelled by two unpredictable, opposites attract fueled narratives, both House and Girl would play very well alongside The Merry Gentleman.

A woman of humanity and good humor who, thankfully, gets to use her own Scottish accent for the film, since to see Kelly Macdonald is to love her, she's the true heart of Michael Keaton's Chicago set tale. Therefore, it's easy to see why she'd be so instantly magnetic to so many men, both right but wrong and wrong but right alike.

Benefiting from an insightful script by Lazzeretti, who was going to direct the movie until a ruptured appendix found Keaton stepping up to the plate, Gentleman also boasts a strong supporting turn by producer-star Tom Bastounes as Dave. Making sure that we never write the Chicago cop off completely, Bastounes fills his scenes with wit and pathos while playing a role that Keaton, in his comedy heyday, might've easily gravitated to in the past.

Perhaps bored by the kind of men he's already played, it's a courageous move for Michael Keaton to branch out and doubly so to step behind the camera to take on the behind-the-scenes lead role he'd been eyeing for quite awhile. And despite a frivolous lawsuit by the film's investors who foolishly tried (and failed) to blame the director for the indie not making a big profit in its 2009 limited run, this eye-opening, critically acclaimed sleeper is so good that it makes you wish that Keaton would return to direct once again.

And while, with that history, you can totally understand why he might not, in a weirdly fitting way, it actually makes sense for the film to be undiscovered. Like the tormented Frank who, in tracking down Kate, is cautiously, tentatively optimistic about a peaceful future with somebody he can be quiet with (at least for a little while), once you manage to pull The Merry Gentleman out of the darkness, you'll find yourself wanting to share it with others and help bring Keaton's labor of love to light.

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