The glum assassin

When Kate Frazier (Macdonald) tells Frank Logan (Keaton), “You just might be the sweetest man I’ve ever met,” we know something she doesn’t — that Frank is a hired assassin. We also know that Kate’s judgment about men is flawed — she has recently fled a violently abusive husband. Most of The Merry Gentleman is an exercise in understatement, however. If films were punctuation marks, Michael Keaton’s most famous vehicle, Batman, would be an exclamation point. But this one is an ellipsis, and it challenges a viewer to imagine what lurks between the dots.

We do know how Kate received the shiner that, after she resettles in Chicago, everyone asks about. She answers reluctantly, with a different story for each interrogator. She tells no one that she was beaten by her husband Michael (Cannavale), a brute who discovers Jesus but remains clueless to his own cruelty. To Dave Murcheson (Bastounes), a bearish police detective who takes a personal interest in the enigmatic woman with a Scots accent, Kate explains that she was accidentally shoved while peering into a telescope. “You’re always looking up,” he observes.

Though her cheerfulness does not stop her from rejecting Dave’s romantic advances, it makes her, somewhat implausibly, immediately receptive to the scuzzy charms of Frank, whose reticence exceeds her own. “We’re two peas in a pod,” Kate tells him, in some of the very spare speech that passes between them. It is by looking up that she first notices suicidal Frank, about to hurl himself off a roof after carrying out a contract killing. Later, when she looks up from under a huge Christmas tree that resists her attempt to carry it into her apartment, Frank is there to help. When he collapses from pneumonia, she gets him to a hospital. They are two loners who savor their solitude together, but their rapport is threatened by Dave’s personal attraction to Kate and his professional suspicions about Frank.

It doesn’t take much imagination for the viewer to realize that the title, echoing the Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” is ironic; as intent on plotting his own death as dispatching those he is paid to rub out, Frank, a man of secret sorrows, is not merry. Nor is Dave, who describes himself as “a divorced, alcoholic, chain-smoking cop.” There are back stories for each of the characters in the film, but the screenplay pushes them so far back they never appear on screen. In his directorial debut, Keaton, who inherited the helm when screenwriter Ron Lazzaretti was hospitalized with a burst appendix, has created a delicate composition in silences and suggestions.

Alone on Christmas after abandoning her marriage and her home in another city, Kate goes to a movie theater. The name of the feature, like much other information, is withheld from the viewer, but it is unlikely to be anything like The Merry Gentleman. Understatement is still a form of statement, but sometimes less is merely less. I look forward to more from Michael Keaton.

The Merry Gentleman
Dir. Michael Keaton; writ. Ron Lazzeretti; feat. Michael Keaton, Kelly Macdonald, Tom Bastounes, Bobby Cannavale (R)

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