When we first meet Kate (Kelly Macdonald), she is nursing a lavender shiner. It doesn't take us long to figure out that her abusive husband (Bobby Cannavale) is responsible, a cop sworn to serve and protect but who instead takes out his frustrations on his wife's face. Kate flees home and heads to Chicago to start a new life. While leaving work one night, she happens to glance up at the falling snow and catches sight of a man standing on the ledge of a building across the street, poised to jump. Luckily, Kate's scream scares him off the roof, an act her co-worker deems nothing less than a "Christmas miracle."
The man is Frank (Michael Keaton), a melancholy, contract killer of few words (it's half an hour in before we hear him speak). Business is booming and Frank is knocking off targets right and left, including one in Kate's building with a sniper rifle just moments before when she catches sight of him. But it isn't enough that Frank kills others—he wants to kill himself as well. And he very well may have too, had Kate not intervened.
Some time later, Frank "coincidently" meets Kate in front of her apartment building. Has he come to kill her to ensure she can't identify him to the police who have already been asking her a lot of questions? Or is he merely fascinated by his guardian angel? Whatever the reason, she doesn't recognize him and he ends up helping her carry her cumbersome Christmas tree up the flights of stairs to her apartment.
So begins a most unlikely friendship, more paternal than romantic. Frank and Kate are both utterly lonely and utterly alone. Craving contact, they fall into step with one another, not saying much, but just glad to have another beating heart in the room. Both are obviously very wounded people, clutching to secrets with vice-like grips—she, her abusive history and he, his profession.
But Frank isn't the only man interested in Kate. Dave (Tom Bastounes), a cop investigating the murder at her office, is also smitten. As their weird little love triangle grows, Dave becomes suspicious of Frank. Part of it is jealousy, part instinct. As Dave begins putting the pieces together, Kate is faced with an impossible decision, all the more complicated by the sudden reappearance of her sadistic husband.
The Merry Gentleman, Keaton's directorial debut, gets its title from the fact that most of the story takes place over the Christmas season. But no one in this film is remotely merry. Kate would be, if she weren't terrified that every time she looked over her shoulder, her husband would be there. Frank would be, if he'd stop extinguishing others' lives. And Dave would be, if he'd only manage to get a handle on his alcoholism, overeating and chain smoking. Instead, everyone is this twisted little triangle is miserable, making for a joyless Christmas and, perhaps for some, a downer of a film.
But The Merry Gentleman is not meant to be a downer. Although it's deliberately—some may say very slowly—psychologically paced, saturated in cold blues and grays, and shot in locations chosen to show urban decomposition, it's actually quite a sweet movie that holds its power close to its vest and shouts in silence rather than whispers in the storm.
The film is suffused with religious imagery and a lavish Catholic philosophy, especially when wrestling with issues of guilt. From the opening shots of the film, we can tell that the church will play a prominent role. Early on, Kate enjoys a cup of coffee while staring at a splendid church across the street that seems to beckon to both her and her pain. She obeys, finding great comfort and solace in its pews and later gushes to a workmate about a statue of Christ with his arms outstretched in welcome.
"I'm not really religious," the workmate says.
"When you see him like that," Kate explains, "religious or not, you just want to run into his arms."
Did Frank have the same experience? Even earlier than Kate, we see him pass the same church, and walk right past the same statue without pausing. The shot, which lasts for nearly half a minute, seems to emphasize the fact that he bypasses the one thing that could give him relief from his crippling guilt and the pervasive desire to end his life. It's not that Frank is uncaring, however. When he encounters a nativity scene in which one of the wise men has toppled over, Frank cannot continue on his way without first righting the oriental king and ensuring everything in the crèche is set up correctly.
The beauty of the religious iconography is tested when Kate is confronted by her estranged husband in the latter half of the film. But instead of attacking her, he tells her of a life—his life—that has been transformed and redeemed by Jesus Christ, a life wiped clean and feet set on the path of righteousness. But his testimony is a litany of menace coming from his mouth. His proclamation cannot possibly be believed. It is the declaration of either madness or manipulation.
"I hope he has found God," Kate tells Dave. "I just wish he hadn't found me."
Through it all, Kate is the one, pure constant. Frank thinks she is an angel and tells her so, as pure as the white snow she comments on repeatedly. And she does seem to be a force for good in the lives of the men who surround her. But Kate is a broken vessel herself, desperately in need of her own mending. Perhaps that is why she finds the outstretched arms of Christ so inviting.
The acting is uniformly terrific. Macdonald, last seen in No Country for Old Men, has always been nothing short of perfect. Her natural kindheartedness and warmth, coupled with an expression of innate goodness (and terrific Scottish accent), shines through in every scene. Bastounes imbues Dave with the perfect mixture of crumbling self-worth and resolute morality. And Keaton, who has had as eclectic career as anyone I can think of, gives us a spare, hollowed out man. This is not some sort of "killer with a heart of gold"; Frank has simply grown weary of pain—both inflicting it and feeling it—and yearns for the warmth of humanity again.
I was reminded, watching Frank and Kate's dance, of Charlotte and Bob in the achingly beautiful Lost in Translation. Both films involve relationships between men and women of very different ages who encounter each other during times of profound loneliness and confusion, and form a kind of love that eschews the physical for the metaphysical. While The Merry Gentleman does not nearly convince us of the reasons behind the characters' attraction to each other (Keaton has so few lines, how could it?), we extrapolate their feelings from the great swaths of silence. What is spoken is not nearly as important as what goes unsaid.
The end of The Merry Gentleman is swaddled in ambiguity and a certain degree of dissatisfaction. Some films start in medius rez, (in the middle of things); this one ends in it. It is not the lack of resolution that is troubling, so much as the feeling that several scenes have gone missing, that the final chapters of the novel you've been enjoying have been pulled from the spine of the book and discarded somewhere just tantalizingly out of reach. As our characters' lives drift apart we ask ourselves—did they find, in each other, what they needed to carry on? Have they come far enough that they are at least on the road to happiness, or will they slip back into the darkness and the gloom?
Will they run into the welcoming arms of salvation or pass them by without recognizing deliverance?
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Have you ever wrestled with overwhelming guilt for something you did? How did you purge it from your life?
- Suicide is a predominant theme. Have you or anyone you know attempted to end their own lives? Was there anything or anyone who could have made a difference?
- Christian symbolism is used throughout the film but doesn't seem to play as much of a part in the last act. Why do you think this is?
- Kate's abusive husband returns to her claiming to be a changed man. Should she have given him a chance? Why or why not?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Merry Gentleman is rated R for language and some violence. The f-bomb is dropped quite a few times, but the rating is due mostly to the after-effects of Frank's job, which frequently manifests itself in pools of crimson gore. There is also a scene in which several characters sample pot.
Photos © Samuel Goldwyn Company
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