Secrets have secrets and twists have twists in the murder mystery "Don McKay." Normally, that's a tantalizing invitation to a rowdy ride of surprises, but this picture isn't interested in working itself into a tight spin of suspense. Labored and distractingly uneven, "Don McKay" comes across as a lackadaisical film school writing assignment that somehow lucked into a feature film deal.
A high school janitor, Don McKay (Thomas Haden Church) lives a routine, solitary life. When a letter arrives from ex-girlfriend Sonny (Elisabeth Shue) beckoning Don back to his old hometown, the placid man complies, returning to an area and woman he hasn't seen in 25 years. Now terminally ill, Sonny wants to rekindle her relationship with Don, much to the disdain of her doctor Lance (James Rebhorn) and roommate Marie (Melissa Leo). Don, overwhelmed with the offer but interested, begins to embrace old feelings for his lost love, only to be attacked by Lance, which results in a dead body, a scheme of blackmail, and whole mess of trouble that plagues his tentative return to a previous life.
Rooted in noirish, early Coen Brothers ambiance, "Don McKay" possesses the basic ingredients for a ripping tale of deception, boasting a cast of eccentric characters and an insistence on baffling motivations. The potential is there, but writer/director Jake Goldberger appears stumped by his own puzzle pieces, leaping into an unexpectedly complex story of murder without a cleanly prepared game plan.
Much of "Don McKay" feels randomly assembled, and that disconnected sensation seeps into the performances, which are a key component to making the script work. Shue overplays the wounded butterfly role to a point of immediate suspicion, traipsing around in Tennessee Williams mode to communicate a disturbed need of our hero that isn't immediately clear. As Don, Church has a good thing going for the first two acts, bearing silent witness to the burgeoning lunacy of his old community, struggling to decode his purpose there. When matters do finally explode, it's a disappointment to find the actor dive back into sardonic Thomas Haden Church mode, commenting on the newborn absurdity wryly, almost breaking character to keep up with a modest comedic element Goldberger unwisely introduces in the last few innings. While the role initially seems like a needed change of pace for Church, his work as Don doesn't end up anywhere new.
Character actor Keith David also appears as Don's cautious old friend, though the role seems whittled down considerably from whatever original function it held in the script. A shame too, since the performance is the most alert in the ensemble.
When bodies go missing, Sonny starts appearing more paranoid than infirmed, and Marie grows increasingly exasperated with the whole household, "Don McKay" doesn't deliver on the mounting questions with any sort of sensible payoff. Instead, Goldberger busses in a twist convention, using shock as a way of distracting the viewer away from logic. Not that "Don McKay" is confusing, but it doesn't exactly invite the strictest concentration when it starts assigning bizarre motivations to form some grand design of fraud. Goldberger is attempting sleight of hand while wearing mittens, and the film eventually peters out instead of concluding with a clenched fist.
Audio & Visual:
Image Entertainment only provided DVD Talk with a screener for review. Final A/V specs were not included.
"Don McKay" is sloppy and unconvincing, growing increasingly desperate to wow with the little it has to offer. Here we have a timid man, a lusty woman, a murder, a disappearing body, and a few elated opportunists. How "Don McKay" manages to take those enticing elements and end up nowhere of note is the real mystery at hand.