As a neo-noir mystery, “Don McKay” isn’t a lot more than the sum of the sources it seeks to honor: vintage Billy Wilder, a bit of Hitchcock, the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple.” The mystery itself is so laboriously convoluted that by the time we learn what’s going on, we’ve long since ceased to care.
Thomas Haden Church gives a near-catatonic performance as the title character, a man whose life hasn’t gone the way he’d hoped, and who now works as a janitor in a Boston prep school. When he receives a letter from his old high-school girlfriend, still resident in the hometown he hasn’t seen in 25 years and now, she says, dying of cancer, he gets right on a plane to go be by her side.
Upon arriving, he discovers that his leafy native burg is a much stranger place than he remembers. The old girlfriend, Sonny (Elisabeth Shue), doesn’t seem to be all that ill, and she quickly announces that she wants Don to marry her: “I want to spend the rest of my very short life with you.” Soon they’re in bed, and Sonny explains further: “I could never find love after you,” she says. “Is that what you want to hear?” “If it’s true,” Don mumbles. “It is,” Sonny says, “if you want it to be.”
Sonny is attended by a weird, prickly woman named Marie (Melissa Leo) and by an equally odd doctor named Pryce (James Rebhorn). When Don notices a woodshed implement incongruously mounted on a wall, Marie says, “You never know when you might need an ax.” When he casually mentions to Pryce that he has slept with Sonny, the doctor explodes and attempts to strangle him.
Seeking clarification, Don pays a visit to a childhood friend named Otis (Keith David), who insists on doing a full-body frisk before he’ll let Don into his house. (“You never know who’s out to get you,” he says, delivering one of the movie’s many nudge-nudge lines.) Inside, we see that Otis’ living room is dominated by a big jukebox that plays only one song. Our willingness to go along with the story here begins to falter.
Back at Sonny’s place, poking around in her closet, Don is surprised (or so we assume — Church’s stony face betrays no emotion throughout the film) to discover that she has saved all the yearning love letters he wrote to her over the years. He’s puzzled, however, by the many framed photos of Sonny positioned around the house — they’ve clearly had a second person scissored out of them.
As Don makes his way around town, he encounters an inexplicably hostile cop (Ted Arcidi), and an overly familiar cabbie (M. Emmet Walsh). There’s also a dead body that won’t stay put and a lethal pot roast (both nods to Hitchcock), plus a fat man (Pruitt Taylor Vince) who may actually know what’s going on. By the time we finally figure it all out, the picture has collapsed under the weight of its several strained implausibilities.
It’s always good to see Elisabeth Shue back on the screen, and Melissa Leo injects some vivid creepiness into the proceedings. Unfortunately, Church’s performance could be stuffed and mounted with no loss of liveliness. First-time director Jake Goldberger struggles mightily to keep all of the story’s contrived plot elements spinning in the air, but he’s undone by the show-off intricacies of his own script. He may well have a better movie in him than this one. In any case, this one will be long forgotten by the time he comes up with it.
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