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Don McKay -- Film Review

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"Don McKay" is meant to be an odd film, but it's odd for the wrong reasons. Actors inhabit the film's spaces awkwardly, as if these were not the sets they rehearsed in. Scenes play in a half-halting manner with too much dead space surrounding the actors. Then their characters keep doing strange things, which one assumes will be explained later. When those explanations arrive, their actions make even less sense.

The film's neophyte writer-director, Jake Goldberger, no doubt was aiming for a darkly comic film noir such as Danny Boyle's "Shallow Grave" or, his own suggestion, the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple." But he mistakes deadness for deadpan and mere oddness for that touch of genius that allows a first-rate filmmaker to get laughs out of the contrast between gruesome acts and mundane social concerns.

A talented cast signed aboard, including Thomas Haden Church -- who executive produces -- Elisabeth Shue, Melissa Leo and M. Emmet Walsh. That should ensure that a few curious cineastes will check out the film this weekend in theaters before it lands on DVD shelves.

One of the film's odder aspects is Church. Playing the title character, a mousy high school custodian without an apparent friend or family member, Church appears determined to play against his normally exuberant type. So he sleepwalks through the movie with little sense of energy or purpose. A better title for this movie would be "Blood Tired."

One day, he gets a letter at school, looks at it with astonishment, and there follows a montage under the opening credits as he travels by bus and then taxi back to his hometown in New England. The taxi driver is Walsh, so you learn in their, well, odd exchange that he didn't leave town under good circumstances.

Nonetheless, his high school girlfriend, Sonny (Shue), has reached out to him to come see her because she is dying. But the strange way she, along with her nurse-minder (Leo) and even the cabbie, act, one is clued that something is not right. The woman's doctor (James Rebhorn) and an old school buddy (Keith David) have peculiar interactions with Don as well.

It gets stranger. Don never bothers to ask what disease is killing Sonny. Shouldn't he at least be curious? Then, when he returns briefly to his apartment at home, one might spot a rotary dial telephone. Even if this is meant to exemplify a character who lives in the past, Don's past was the '80s, and few people had rotary dials even then.

Soon enough there is a dead body, and the problem arises, as it does in most classic murder tales, of its disposal. Suffice it to say, this task is handled badly. Especially because there is no real need to hide the body in the first place.

So it goes, each development and detail less convincing than the last. Actors are left stranded with their own devices when their characters, as written, either lack motivations or must play dual motivations -- the one meant to confuse the audience and the real one that eventually gets revealed.

Finally, the actors are completely deserted by the writer-director in an ending that is meant to be madcap bloody but is simply mad. None of it makes any sense. It's James M. Cain stood on his head with all his worst pulp-fiction plot ideas spilling out.

Such tech contributions as the strange props, including an ancient ax, and flat camera angles don't help as much as the director thinks they do.

Opens: April 2 (Image Entertainment)
Production companies: Animus/Films
Cast: Thomas Haden Church, Elisabeth Shue, Melissa Leo, James Rebhorn, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Keith David, M. Emmet Walsh
Director/screenwriter: Jake Goldberger
Producer: Jim Young
Executive producers: Thomas Haden Church, William Earon, James Young
Director of photography: Phil Parmet
Production designer: Aleta Shaffer
Music: Steve Bramson
Costume designer: Andrew Poleszak
Editor: Andrew Dickler
Rated R, 91 minutes