Thomas Haden Church is one of those under-utilized treasures of cinema who only recently has started to get the kinds of roles he deserves.
Even then, with the exception of his role in Smart People and the TV mini-series Broken Trail, since Sideways put him back on the map, Church still hasn't had any roles as juicy as the title character of Don McKay.
While Jake Goldberger's debut as a writer-director isn't perfect, it's an always-interesting, squirmy-funny exercise in oddness that happily takes its time getting to the truth of these characters' reality. Even devotees of the Coen brothers (whose Blood Simple was an inspiration for Goldberger) won't be able to predict where this story will zig or zag next.
Church plays Don, as sad a sack as ever pushed a broom as a high-school janitor. Then one day he gets a letter from Sonny (Elisabeth Shue), his high-school sweetheart. He hasn't heard from her since he left his hometown in disgrace 25 years earlier - and now she desperately needs him to come visit.
He arrives to discover that, in fact, Sonny is dying of cancer (though she looks like, well, a radiant Elisabeth Shue). She's not exactly as he remember her but, hey, 25 years is a long time. Sonny is tended to by a stern nurse named Marie (Melissa Leo), who seems to take a dislike to Don almost as soon as he arrives.
She's not the only one. Sonny's doctor (James Rebhorn) shows up to tend to Sonny - and, once they're alone, he violently assaults Don, intent on killing him. Defending himself, Don accidentally offs the doctor and then, in a panic, hides him in Sonny's backyard.
That body becomes a source of serious tension - but also of several tense laughs. Nothing and no one are what they appear to be in this self-assured, carefully measured tale of deception and double-dealing.
Not that Goldberger is able to build the tension to true suspense. Eventually, he's got to explain things so that both Don - and the befuddled but hopefully enthralled audience - understand what's going on. It becomes a process of elimination because Goldberger ultimately forces the story down a cul de sac of possible (and plausible) explanations.
Still, this film rides quite happily along on the strength of Church's performance, at once a marvel of reticence and contained feelings. Don is obviously in turmoil; he just as obviously doesn't want to reveal just how confused and filled with roiling emotions he really is.
Shue is nearly as good, bringing a sunny quality to Sonny - until she doesn't. She turns on a dime like a well-tuned automobile, without showing the effort. The film also offers tasty, smaller roles for Leo, Rebhorn, Keith David (always a master at keeping other characters off-balance) and Pruitt Taylor Vince.
Don McKay is a solid debut for Goldberger and a fascinating showcase for the always compelling Thomas Haden Church. It's worth tracking down for him alone - and for many of its other elements.