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"The Merry Gentleman" takes its ironic title from the fact that most of the events in the film begin around the Christmas season, but no one in this picture is even remotely happy. But the downbeat mood can't hide that overall it is an interesting effort from first-time feature director Michael Keaton, marred only by a needlessly ambiguous ending.

Kate (Kelly Macdonald) has run away from her abusive husband (Bobby Cannavale) and found a job in a distant city. One night while leaving work, she glances up at a building across the street and sees a man standing on a ledge, as if about to jump. It turns out he's Frank (Keaton), a gloomy, introverted contract killer who has whacked a man in Kate's building and is contemplating suicide. But Kate's scream confuses Frank, who falls backward onto the roof, where he gathers up his things and steals away.

The next day, Kate is interviewed by the police and tells them what she saw. One of the cops, Dave (Tom Bastounes), takes a personal interest Kate and invites her out to dinner. In the meantime, Kate accidentally has met Frank, whom she does not recognize, when he helps her carry a large Christmas tree into her apartment.

Through a series of convincing plot twists, Kate and Frank develop a platonic relationship of sorts, though it's obvious both are wounded people hiding secrets: Kate is terrified that anyone will discover her secret — she makes up several stories trying to explain her battered face — and Frank is so internalized he's nearly catatonic.

In time, Dave — who becomes suspicious of Frank partly out of jealousy and partly because of cop instincts — suspects what his rival's real work is.

Keaton, who has done fine work in the past, takes this character, who has a minimum of dialogue, and makes him pathetic and utterly frightening.

Directorially, the film is structured well and has a darkness that suits the material. There also is a Catholic subtext about guilt and redemption that does not overplay its hand. But just when "Gentleman" reaches its climax, Ron Lazzeretti's screenplay twists itself into a knot, and the film ends on an ambiguous note that leaves the viewer unsatisfied.

That's a shame because Keaton exhibits a rather deft touch with actors and pacing. It's an interesting little film that shows some real promise. Hopefully, the director's next work will have a more assured ending. (partialdiff)
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