For most of his directorial debut The Merry Gentleman, Michael Keaton sports a goatee and a dark turtleneck sweater, so he’s clearly somebody’s evil twin. Perhaps he’s the sinister, taciturn alter ego of the live-wire comedic persona Keaton established in the 1980s, beginning with his breakthrough role in Ron Howard’s Night Shift.
In The Merry Gentleman, Keaton takes a change of pace as drastic as his brooding turn in Batman. He plays Frank Logan, an enigmatic, suicidal hitman who maintains a cover as a tailor, although the script never clarifies his professions’ relationship to each other. After offing a victim with a sniper’s rifle one night, he stands on the ledge of a building and considers killing himself. Office worker Kate (Scottish-accented Kelly Macdonald, retaining her charming burr) happens to see him, cries out and saves his life.
Frank stalks Kate and incrementally works his way into her confidence. Does the killer see her as his possible savior, or merely a potential witness to be silenced? The actor’s performance conveys the idea that Frank himself doesn’t exactly know. Even if he were a more conventional Keaton chatterbox, Frank probably couldn’t articulate what he wants. It’s a tribute to Keaton’s understated acting that he conveys so much ambivalence through so little dialogue.
The Merry Gentleman can be frustrating, though, with how little it reveals of Frank’s background and motivation. The true protagonist is Kate, the battered wife of a troubled police officer (Bobby Cannavale) trying to start a new life. Dave Murcheson (Tom Bastounes), a detective investigating Frank’s murders, awkwardly attempts to court Kate, so the film surrounds her with men with the capacity for violence and deception.
Macdonald’s raw, mournful emotions should be enough to carry a movie, but ultimately The Merry Gentleman doesn't give the audience enough to chew on. A prominent and at times thudding motif of spirituality runs through the film, beginning with its holiday setting and evocations of Christmas miracles. At one point Kate offers the theory to Frank that ghosts are “haunted” where angels are “blessed,” and it’s pretty obvious who’s supposed to be the ghost and who’s the angel in that particular couple. Given that none of the male characters prove remotely merry, the title character could possibly be Jesus. It’s to The Merry Gentleman’s credit that it leaves so much for the audience to decide, but the film withholds so much, you can’t exactly make any informed choices.