'Don McKay': A Fatal Attraction And A Terminal Case

Elisabeth Shue

There's A Bad Connection: Elisabeth Shue does delicious work as Sonny, the gravely ill ex-sweetheart of the title character in Jake Goldberger's black comedy, Don McKay. But despite the rekindled romance, there's something decidedly off-kilter at Sonny's. Image Entertainment hide caption

itoggle caption Image Entertainment

Don McKay

  • Director: Jake Goldberger
  • Genre: Comedy, Thriller
  • Running Time: 87 min
Rated R for language and violence

With: Thomas Haden Church, Elisabeth Shue, Melissa Leo

With a gentle-giant demeanor and a face that wouldn't be out of place on Easter Island, Thomas Haden Church is not your typical leading man — unless, that is, your leading man is a lonely, phlegmatic high school janitor named Don McKay.

When we first meet him, Don is mopping what appears to be blood from a classroom floor. Then we realize it's the art class, and the mess on the floor is really red paint. But the scene sets the tone for a movie in which everything is a tease and everyone has a secret. Whether we are interested in solving these mysteries depends entirely on our identification with Don, whose permanently stunned expression and extreme passivity suggest either brain damage or emotional impaction. Debilitating constipation also should not be ruled out.

Then Don receives a letter from Sonny (Elisabeth Shue), his high-school sweetheart: Sonny has terminal cancer and would like to see Don before she dies. Returning to the hometown he abandoned — very suddenly, it seems — 25 years earlier, Don finds everything just a little bit off. There's a suspiciously gabby cabbie (M. Emmet Walsh) who asks too many questions, and a creepy doctor (James Rebhorn) whose stethoscope lingers rather too long between Sonny's breasts.

Thomas Haden Church i i

Now Look What You've Done: A lonely high school janitor, Don McKay (Thomas Haden Church) rushes back to Sonny's side when she reaches out. But his hometown, he'll discover, isn't everything he remembers. Image Entertainment hide caption

itoggle caption Image Entertainment
Thomas Haden Church

Now Look What You've Done: A lonely high school janitor, Don McKay (Thomas Haden Church) rushes back to Sonny's side when she reaches out. But his hometown, he'll discover, isn't everything he remembers.

Image Entertainment

Then there's Sonny's prim caretaker, Marie (Melissa Leo, struggling to contain a full-on impersonation of Cloris Leachman's housekeeper in Young Frankenstein). Marie seems particularly attached to an ugly ax mounted on the wall, a weapon whose presence is laden with foreshadowing. No wonder Don lifts his pinkie when drinking his tea: Upsetting Marie would seem an imprudent move.

As a merely odd situation — where is Sonny's ex-husband? Why are all the pictures in the house doctored? — turns menacingly surreal, Don McKay slides from black comedy to bloody thriller, and not without some success. Helping matters considerably is the skewed chemistry between the leads: Underappreciated since her 1996 Oscar nomination for Leaving Las Vegas, Shue displays a real talent for walking the drama-comedy tightrope without resorting to archness. It's not easy to deliver a line like, "I want to spend the rest of my very short life with you" and look like you mean it, especially when the object of your affection is as responsive as a couch cushion.

Claiming influences from an "admittedly bizarre" mixture of Billy Wilder, the Coen brothers, David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock, first-time writer-director Jake Goldberger has produced a movie with some charm and a lot of contrivance. But though the final barrage of twists and revelations may obliterate credulity, the movie's pleasures are thankfully not dependent on the overcooked narrative. Spiked with weirdly arresting images — a dead bee bobbing forlornly in a puddle of milk — and genuine wit ("I think you've probably spilled enough seed in the house already," snaps Marie when Don offers to help with the gardening), Don McKay is a curious hybrid of warring tones that occasionally make peace. When they do, it's quite magical.

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