What with Michael Keaton’s current resurgence, I thought I’d take the opportunity to look at his largely overlooked, directorial debut, The Merry Gentleman (Keaton, 2008).
The premise of The Merry Gentleman revolves around Kate Frazier (Kelly MacDonald) who’s on the run from an abusive husband, hoping to find anonymity and a fresh start in the city of Chicago. The shy and reserved Kate keeps her distance from her co-workers, but when Kate inadvertedly meets Frank Logan (Keaton), she discovers another fragile soul and a kinship is born -although one built upon deception. Unbeknownst to Kate, Frank has a rather shady form of employment, he may be a tailor by day, but by night he’s a mob hitman. As the relationship develops, we expect the two to offer each other a form of redemption, but unsurprisingly, their pasts catch-up with them.
The comparison between Frank and Keaton’s Batman isn’t a difficult connection to make, what with both characters being defined by their duality -one life in light and the other in shadows. As with Batman (Burton, 1989), The Merry Gentleman begins with Keaton’s character observing the world -although not from a towering gothic cathedral -but a park bench, you sense that he sees the world’s ugliness (just as the Batman does). However, it isn’t long until this fleeting moment of contemplation/passivity is marked by a violent confrontation. And the comparison to the Batman doesn’t end there, just like Bruce Wayne wears the batsuit, so too does Frank, with his own suit of armour, albeit a less glamorous one -a flat cap, scarf and a winter coat. Yes these items protect the character from the winter elements, but it’s also a metaphorical -and literal -layer for people to get through -a mask.
Frank may not have the holier than holy nature of the masked vigilante, but the people he ‘offs’ are almost certainly as ‘dirty’ as him (if not more so). And despite never speaking of it -or much else -it’s implied that Frank has some sort of moral code, never is this more clearly implied than in his reluctance to kill, Kate, who could possibly expose him after she accidentally witnesses him assassinating a target.
All the characters that inhabit Keaton’s Chicago are damaged, each with their own share of emotional baggage; these people are life’s casualties. The men, in particular, range from letchy co-workers, to rude strangers, to abusive husbands, murderers or alcoholic cops with a string of failed marriages’. The line between good and bad is blurred; Kate’s abusive husband is a police officer -an archetypal symbol of protection and justice – whereas Frank, the hitman and therefore criminal, is kind, sensitive and extremely protective and caring towards Kate. Above all else, The Merry Gentleman is a considered character piece.
While all of the film’s characters are scarred it’s only MacDonald’s Kate who appears complicit in her abuse, almost as if she seeks out abusive suitors -albeit subconsciously -in some form of masochistic, self-destructive tendency. But together, Keaton and MacDonald deliver two solid, unshowy performances, portraits of people weathered by life, making it easy to care about these complex and vulnerable characters.
As Keaton knows all to well, sometimes it’s what isn’t said that’s important; few actors can communicate inner turmoil so easily. The exterior may be calm but beneath the surface there’s a storm brewing, which is precisely why his Batman, has never been matched. Few actors do this with such apparent ease and that’s just one reason why Keaton should be treasured.
And as directorial debuts go, few American actors-turned directors could match the sombre brilliance of The Merry Gentleman.
For more on Michael Keaton read Michael Keaton: The Dark Knight Returns. The Merry Gentleman is available to buy on DVD now.
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