Novice writer/director Jake Goldberger’s “homage” to the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple shows just how hard it is to replicate the delicate mix of bizarre behavior, shocking violence, quirky characters and black comedy that are hallmarks of the Coen’s films. With Thomas Haden Church as a janitor who returns to his hometown only to get mixed up in a money and murder scheme with his dying ex-girlfriend, Don McKay just never seems to be able to blend its noir elements into a story that makes us care one way or the other. Long delayed release will be in and out of arthouses in a flash with any hope for recoupment coming from DVD and cable play.
Story begins with janitor Don McKay (Church) receiving a mysterious letter and then suddenly hightailing it to the hometown he left under tragic circumstances 25 years earlier. He explains all this to the cabbie (M. Emmett Walsh) that drops him off at his destination. There he meets his old high school girlfriend, Sonny (Elisabeth Shue), who has summoned him back to be with her as she is dying, of what we never quite know.
The fact that she acts so strangely should be a tipoff to the morose McKay who also doesn’t seem to know what to make of the people tending to her, including a strange nurse (Melissa Leo) and her doctor (James Rebhorn). As is typical of this type of noir scenario, dialogue is never in coherent sentences and the character’s actions and words become a puzzle until they are eventually revealed in different lights. McKay’s real problems begin when he’s attacked and gets caught up in a murder. After the altercation he enlists the aid of an old friend (Keith David) to help him out, leading to a bizarre scene where they search for the body he thought he buried in Sonny’s backyard.
As the plot unravels, character motivations take a sharp turn and McKay slowly realizes he has been thrust into something much bigger and more perplexing than he ever imagined. Clearly Goldberger thinks he can juggle this delicate noirish soufflé but it all comes crashing down around him because the true nature of his characters’ actions just don’t make a whole lot of sense, even when the layers of mystery and neuroses are slowly stripped away. Unfortunately Goldberger’s script never adds up.
Part of the problem lies in Church’s weak lead performance, in which he appears to run the shallow gamut of emotions (from A to B), almost sleepwalking through the role, unable to get a handle on it. Shue fares better although she’s also been dealt a losing hand with the non-sensical Sonny. Leo (billed here as Melissa Chessington Leo) is solid as always while Rebhorn and David are used for silly plot turns. Pruitt Taylor Vince and Walsh round out the cast but neither has much to do.
Distributor: Image Entertainment
Cast: Thomas Haden Church, Elisabeth Shue, Melissa Chessington Leo, James Rebhorn, Pruitt Taylor Vince, M Emmet Walsh and Keith David
Director/Screenwriter: Jake Goldberger
Producer: Jim Young
Rating: R for language and some violence.
Running time: 91 min.
Release date: April 2 NY/LA/BOS