When she first sees him, he's wrapped in evening shadows, standing on the edge of a roof. She screams "No!" and saves him. The first time he sees her, her face is raised to the heavens, arms outstretched like an angel, snow drifting down around her. He hopes he won't have to kill her.
That is how "The Merry Gentleman" begins, a dark and lovely drama about the complications of human connections that is Michael Keaton's impressive directing debut. It is a haunting story, not exactly of love -- it turns out there won't be enough time for that to develop -- but of the safety and comfort two damaged souls can find within each other.
Keaton, who has never been easy with a conventional career, stars as Frank Logan, a depressed hit man -- the one who contemplated the death dive on that snowy evening just moments after putting a very well-placed single shot into a businessman across the way. Though he's extremely good at what he does -- we will get a look at how inventive he can be -- there's just no job satisfaction in it anymore.
She is Kate Frazier, a young battered wife trying to escape her brutal cop of a husband and disappear into the gritty folds of a new city. Played with dignity and disarming innocence by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, Kate is unaware that the reserved man she accidentally encounters at her apartment house is the suicide she averted or that he's mulling her fate as they talk.
Everything about the film is beautifully spare and exceedingly refined: the economy of language of Ron Lazzeretti's screenplay, the wintry urban world of a Chicago few will recognize caught by cinematographer Chris Seager, the quiet pitch of the performances. The story itself is compact -- would the kindness of a bad man be more valuable if he were good?
Macdonald is a wonder in "The Merry Gentleman." She brings a kind of ethereal quality to each of her roles and a lushness that you hope will never be beaten away by hours in a gym. We see fear and hope compete as she slowly lets Frank into her life. Conflicting emotions often dance dangerously in Macdonald's characters as cunning and desperation did in her seduction of a government drone in HBO's remarkable "The Girl in the Cafe," for which she won an Emmy.
Against that softness comes the hard, etched intensity of Keaton, who stays in a minor key even as their relationship grows. It has felt as if we had lost him to animation, where his voice plays light and loose, so it is a great treat to see him walking in Frank's heavy shoes.
Other characters swirl around the pair. Darleen Hunt as Kate's friend, Bobby Cannavale as the husband and Tom Bastounes as the cop who uses his inquiry into the derailed suicide to try to get close to Kate. But they are ancillary to the beating heart of this film as we watch two broken people begin to heal. It is a bittersweet testament to the power of small, selfless acts and a reminder that you never know who will be the one to save you.
'The Merry Gentleman'
MPAA rating: R for language and some violence
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In selected theaters