When you think of great directorial debuts you tend to think of classic movies like Danny Boyle's "Shallow Grave," The Coen Bother's "Blood Simple" or even Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It," but director Jake Goldberger's directorial debut Don McKay is a film that deserves to be added to that list. The writer/director shows a real talent here for crafting an interesting, calculated and complicated character study with fascinating characters that you can't keep your eyes off of. The film has a fast, almost urgent pace to it, which is reflected in its eighty-seven minutes long run time but at the same time has the luxury of building like a slow burn, which only adds to the tension of the film. Goldberger is also helped by the fact that he has assembled and amazing cast of acting luminaries led by Oscar nominated actor Thomas Haden Church ("Sideways") in the title role. Rounding out the incredible cast are some sensational performances by Melissa Leo ("Frozen River"), M. Emmet Walsh ("The Mighty Quinn"), Keith David ("They Live"), James Rebhorn ("Carlito's Way") and Elisabeth Shue ("Leaving Las Vegas").
While the ensemble cast is wonderful together it is Church's signature awkward and quirky performance that is fascinating to watch and sets the tone for the film. Church has made a name for himself as a mainstream actor who can pull off these types of parts in mainstream films as well as independents and shines here as the mysterious "Don McKay." I also thought of the film The Usual Suspects" a lot while watching this film. While it was not quite Bryan Singer's first feature it was close and has many similarities to this film. Although the two films are different in plot it is the tone, dark humor and the stories intricate plot twists that makes them similar. Goldberger deserves a lot of credit for crafting such a unique and complicated plot for his first film and the fact that he was able to pull it off with style and grace. Not to mention that his ability to get such great performances out of these actors is impressive as well.
The beauty of the film is that much of what you see in the beginning is revealed to be different at the end so not to give away any surprises I will be very delicate with my description of the film. The movie begins by introducing us to a lonely, somewhat pathetic high school janitor, Don McKay (Church) who has been struggling with the demons of his past and mistakes that he made in his youth. After an incident that happened as a teenager, McKay left his childhood home and would not return until decades later when he receives a very surprising letter from his high school sweetheart, Sonny, played with fire and passion by Elisabeth Shue. Upon returning to the town, Don is attacked by a mysterious man (James Rebhorn) and accidentally kills him while protecting himself. He is then forced to burry his body in the back of Sonny's house. Unable to go to the police because of his past, he confides in his childhood friend, Otis played by the fantastic Keith David.
The two have not seen each other since Don left years earlier and Otis is shocked by his confession but agrees to help his old friend. Don also comes in contact with Samuel a local cab driver played with real warmth by screen legend M. Emmet Walsh. Samuel knows who Don is and what he is hiding from his past yet makes no judgments on the matter and instead becomes a father-like figure for Don. Don reunites with Sonny, who says that she is ill and wishes to marry Don and spend the rest of their days together. Melissa Leo, a fantastic actress in her own right, plays Sonny's odd friend who turns out not to be who she says she is. In fact, as the truth about Don's past is revealed we soon realize that many of the characters are not who they claim to be, including Sonny and that they're intensions are being orchestrated by alternative motivations. As Don wrestles with the life he has taken as well as the mistakes of his past he must now decide if the love he has for Sonny is real and if its worth pursuing after the revelations that are made by several of the main characters. When the truth is revealed, Don struggles to make sense of it all and deal with the repercussions of his actions.
The twists and turns of the plot are well crafted and never once feel like cheap tricks used to make a "cool" story. They are all organic twists that make sense and are generated by the soul of the characters. Elisabeth Shue gives a good performance, kind of channeling Blanch Du Bois from "A Street Car Named Desire," and I give her a lot of credit for playing the role carefully enough to not give away the ending but at the same time foreshadow it from the beginning. Oscar nominated Melissa Leo is absolutely outstanding in her bizarre role and further proves that she is an acting force in Hollywood not to be reckoned with. I really enjoyed M. Emmet Walsh's performance in the film. The actor is a true screen legend, (if you don't believe me just look at the mans resume) and in this film crafts a beautiful performance that plays against stereotypes and how you think the character might behave. The scenes between him and Church are some of the best in the film. But it is the performance of the great Thomas Haden Church as Don McKay that grounds the film in reality and really allows the audience to take this journey with this broken man. The actor has been giving strong, awkward and moving performances fro years but this is truly one of his best. I can't imagine any other actor playing this role so well, Church IS Don McKay and you can feel that in every frame of the film. His ability to do nothing, and just let the camera focus on him in a close up and see the history and madness of this character in every line of his face is awesome. It is such a multi-layered character and Church hits a home run out of the park with this performance. In the end, Don McKay is one of those special, awkward and interesting character pieces that only come around once in a while that completely enthralls you with every moment of the film.