So here’s an oddity. Don McKay is a peculiar hybrid of thriller, black comedy, small-town drama, and who knows what else, pitched at an odd angle that resembles no reality I recognized, either in life or in other movies. It’s so strange, in fact, that I half-wonder if writer/director Jake Goldberger was trying to remove himself from the conventions of storytelling entirely, and stake out a claim in the surreal. I’ve never seen a film quite like it, though I can’t tell you if that’s a good or bad thing.Thomas Haden Church (who executive produced) stars as the title character, an introverted janitor who is summoned back to his hometown by his high-school sweetheart (Elisabeth Shue), who is dying of some mysterious “sickness.” She says that she has only a short time to live, but she’s like to spend the rest of that time with him. He seems agreeable enough to that idea (and to just about everything else—seldom has there been a more inert leading character than this one), though he is eyed suspiciously by her caretaker (Melissa Leo) and her doctor (James Rebhorn).
These opening passages are curious; we admire Goldberger for assembling such a stellar cast of terrific character actors (Keith David, M. Emmet Walsh, and Pruitt Taylor Vince also show up), and can’t help but marvel at how good he is at building tension into the mundanities of small-town life. But something isn’t quite right—the dialogue is too deliberately stylized, and the timing is just a little off, a little sprung.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, the picture takes a grisly turn (which I won’t reveal here). Immediately thereafter, we’re plunged into a sequence of maddening suspense, one of those potboiler specials where a horrible discovery hinges on the split-second timing of cleanup and clothing and keys turning in locks. I first admired Goldberger for this neo-Hitchcockian scene (and figured he was going for a Hitch vibe, what with the Shadow of a Doubt-style set-up and Leo’s shades-of-Rebecca performance), but then I started to grimace; the music was too bombastic, and he was overdoing it, as if it wasn’t supposed to be that scene, but a parody of a scene like that. What’s he up to?
For the bulk of the second act, Goldberger basically tries to see how long the movie can subsist purely on dread, atmosphere, and strangeness. We keep asking questions that the movie doesn’t answer, even when Don himself asks them. Things get particularly daft between Church—who is doing this flat, empty thing with his line readings, which is surely a choice (he can be a nicely expressive actor), though maybe not a successful one, at least in the moment-to-moment of the film—and Shue, whose performance becomes more and more like a soap opera regular the deeper we get into the picture. At any rate, they’re saying all of these odd things to each other (some of the dialogue scenes are little more than exchanges of non-sequitors), and sometimes they say them seriously, and sometimes not, and are they buying into this? Are we supposed to? Just what the hell is going on in this movie?
But then Goldberger goes and blows it it with another turn that’s pure nonsense, the kind of head-scratching hokum that may not be a cheat, technically, but sure feels like one. So what are we left with? I’m honestly not sure. I can’t fully endorse or recommend Don McKay—it’s too messy and all-over-the-place for that—but it certainly isn’t boring. I’ll give it that much.