06/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Review of Don McKay

Written and directed by Jake Goldberger

Rating: 3 stars

Don McKay
marks the debut of writer/director Jake Goldberger. As a screenwriter, Goldberger shows promise, but, as a director, he does little else than mimic his influences; however, the weaknesses of McKay are only apparent because of their proximity to its brilliance. Goldberger's screenplay manages to replace the casualness of a character portrait with the cumulative, torsional narrative of a thriller, while surreptitiously maintaining its priority of detail the entire time. For that alone, it is worth watching.

McKay, a soppy, lumbering man, leads an uneventful adult life as a high school janitor; the last twenty-five years of his life need no more explanation than a single shot of him buffing a linoleum floor; that is, until a letter from his ailing high school girlfriend sends him back home for the first time since he was eighteen years old, and he is forced to confront his original reasons for leaving.

Thomas Haden Church leads as the eponymous Don McKay and manages to accomplish his signature, almost inexplicable, poignancy, while Elisabeth Shue plays the conniving, never-to-forget Sonny, McKay's high school sweetheart. By the end of the film, Shue manifests Sonny's two-facedness so well that I now miss her a bit as an actress, even though I hadn't really noticed her disappearance in the first place. The most vibrant performance, though, is most certainly Melissa Leo's, whose rendering of Sonny's severe caretaker, Marie, is so natural that it makes everyone else appear stiff in comparison.

Goldberger's script is striking because of how much it humbles itself by the end. The story brews in the stilted anxiety of a horror movie but concludes in the meek glow a man seeing the sadness of his own life. What seemed like the suspicious tension of a thriller becomes the incongruence of a world seen from the eyes of a man so fraught with guilt and regret that he has to deny and reshape an immutable truth in order to survive. Thus, without you even noticing it, Goldberger manages to explain a man's mind through the manipulation of convention, while simultaneously plaiting an absorbing yarn.

Unfortunately, though, Goldberger's capacity as a writer far exceeds his capability as a director. There is little aesthetically inspired about the film; in fact, it feels like a poor adaptation of a beloved book, but the only victim of the film's flatness is Goldberger's own innovation. What should be unnerving is instead grating and what should be genuinely humorous is laughable for its contrivance. The distance between the film and the script is a shame, and the cause of this discrepancy isn't so clear, but I imagine it's a lack of confidence. The film's visual style, when it has any, barely extends beyond pastiche, and the whole thing ends up feeling a lot like a poor man's Coen brothers' film.

Nevertheless, Don McKay is an impressive first film, and, if for no other reason, it deserves support for the fact that it is truly independent, a rare breed to see in the wild these days. Goldberger has obvious potential and maybe someday he'll remake Don McKay into the rhapsody it very well could be. If he does do that, he better keep the last shot the same; it's a beaut.