(2009)2.5Phillip MaherAs played by Thomas Haden Church, the titular protagonist of director Jake Goldberger’s thriller Don McKay is the kind of person we each see and maybe even speak to on a daily basis, and yet know nothing about. A janitor employed at a Boston high school, he’s one of those faint presences in our lives whose soul may resemble a jar full of lightning bugs, with luminous secrets and emotions swirling and ricocheting around in a container made of glass. When Don gets a letter from Sonny (Elisabeth Shue), his high school sweetheart, announcing that she has contracted a terminal illness and wants to see him again before she dies, he knows that his jar is about to get shaken and possibly shattered. Sporting a permanent simian scowl, McKay dives back into a past he has spent a lifetime trying to forget, but when he returns to his hometown for the first time in 25 years, he immediately begins spotting some perplexing discrepancies between his memory and his perceptions.
The first hour of Don McKay can be somewhat arbitrarily compared to the first five seasons of Lost, as both are effective demonstrations of the addictive draw of a rigorous, though often ridiculous, enigma. The audience is presented with a mystery that extends past "who, what, where, when, and why" into the realm of "how" and "huh?" The churn of events surrounding the film's title character is so lucidly bizarre that the narrative pushes open the door to the imagination, until solutions which would normally be dismissed as absurd, capricious, or outlandish suddenly emerge as the most reasonable explanations. Twenty minutes into the film, a brain scan of the average audience member would probably look like the finale of the Fourth of July, as the neurons and synapses pop, sizzle, and swim, trying to find the proper channels for processing this curious and entirely enjoyable experience. However, the last half hour of Don McKay can be less arbitrarily compared to the sixth season of Lost, as both serve to remind us that when the possible explications for such a tantalizing riddle dwindle from the infinite to the singular, the extent of our enjoyment of the text tends to dissipate at a similar rate.
All story and plot elements aside, the film is worth watching because of the spectacular cast of character actors. By some miraculous alignment of the heavens, first-time writer and director Jake Goldberger has managed to assemble several of the most familiar faces and voices in Hollywood for his debut effort. There's M. Emmet Walsh, as a senile (yet menacing) cab driver! There's Pruitt Taylor Vince, as a cherubic (yet menacing) private detective! There's Melissa Leo, as a devoted (yet menacing) nurse! There's Keith David, as a bespectacled, and not entirely menacing, loner with a possessed jukebox. There's James Rebhorn, sporting a creepy porn moustache which is downright (you guessed it) menacing. Throw in the headliners, Thomas Haden Church and Elisabeth Shue, and you've got a cast that can probably connect any two actors on the planet via the Kevin Bacon game. Church is essentially extrapolating on his career-making role as Lowell Mather, the beloved and blithely obtuse janitor from TV's Wings, and it's easy to imagine the producers pitching this film as Lowell having wandered into an episode of Twin Peaks.
The less said about the central enigma, the better. But watch out for bee stings, and remember what Anton Chekhov said about seeing a shotgun (or an ax) on the wall during the first act. Perhaps it is a testament to the strength and intelligence of the mystery that the last half hour of the film is so deflating, such that the final resolution feels almost irrelevant. The more we learn, the less satisfied we are, until the only option is to ignore the purported lesson of the film by using our memory to artificially idealize the delicious bewilderment we felt during those wonderful first 20 minutes.
First time writer/director Jake Goldberger takes the helm for this thriller about a man who returns to his hometown after receiving a letter from his high school sweetheart, who claims to be dying. It's been 25 years since Don McKay (Thomas Haden Church) turned his back on his hometown, and he never imagined he would ever return. But when a letter from his former girlfriend Sonny (Elisabeth Shue) appears in Don's mailbox, he can't resist visiting his old flame one more time, before her light disappears forever. When Don comes home and realizes that his memories of Sonny don't match up with the woman she is now, it quickly becomes apparent that he harbors a shameful secret from years gone by. Meanwhile, Sonny's doctor (James Rebhorn) and caretaker (Melissa Leo) don't warm quickly to the returning visitor, and a chance run-in suddenly compounds Don's buried secret.