With dark comedies, the ratio of comedy to darkness is what gives a film its identity. Many modern filmmakers put an emphasis on darkness and disturbing situations like Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction") and the Coen Brothers ("Fargo"), whereas others hail from the old school approach of keeping violence to a minimum and instead drawing humor from the bizarre ways the characters act around it, such as in "Arsenic & Old Lace" (1944) or "Deathtrap" (1982).
Here in "Don McKay" we fall squarely into the old school style. There is 1 death early in the film, and the rest of the film is about the mysterious and absurd criss-crossings of schemes from each character whose intentions we don't know until the end. Apologies to Tarantino & the Coens (whose films I really like), but I prefer this sort of approach because, although it may sacrifice thrills & action, it's ultimately a style that you can enjoy on a deeper psychological level.
Don McKay (Thomas Hayden Church whom I'll always remember as the lovably slow mechanic in the 80s sitcom "Wings") is a lonely man whose entire life consists of cleaning the floors at a Boston high school. One day he receives a mysterious letter that prompts him to drop everything and hop a bus to his hometown which, by the gorgeous scenery, looks like the Pacific northwest but they're not specific. Once there, he gets wrapped up in murder, mayhem and memories. And although this is not a whodunnit, it becomes a fun mystery as we try to figure out who each character is, including our hero Don McKay, a man of very few words.
Thomas Hayden Church is brilliantly cast in the lead role, almost reprising his humorously awkward role in Wings but with a deep, observant intelligence that gives the film depth. As we piece together the bizarre characters & circumstances surrounding the death, we are also hard at work trying to figure out what makes Don McKay tick and why he is apparently running from something. Thus, there are 2 stories unfolding at the same time, and the brilliant (and hilarious!) climactic scene pulls it all together in a way that's tense, funny, enlightening and unmistakably human.
And let me dwell on that word for a minute: human. Although we are given no backstory to any of these oddball characters, each one comes across as very human. There are no wooden performances here, unless you count Thomas' deliberately wooden, stoic characterization of Don McKay. Elizabeth Shue absolutely blows this out of the park, playing a complex yet in many ways childlike character whom I can only compare to Vivien Leigh's famous performance in "Streetcar Named Desire". Melissa Leo plays a creepy, uptight nurse who is reminiscent of the demon child's nanny in "The Omen" haha. By the way, observe how her character's clothes & appearance become more frazzled & frenetic in each scene. Keith David, in one of the greatest comic-relief roles since the porter in Shakespeare's Macbeth, plays Don McKay's neurotic childhood friend, the perfect counterbalance to Thomas Hayden Church's emotionless enigma. And there are 2 fantastic bit roles (1) the cab driver played by Emmet Walsh who's been in everything from Blood Simple to Bladerunner; and (2) Pruitt Taylor Vince as "Mel" the dorky crook who looks like he would be more comfortable working at Best Buy than being part of any sort of murder story.
I also give major old school points to the director for pulling off some hilarious sight gags. Not corny slapstick but funny visual compositions that had me LOLing (for example when Thomas & Melissa are in a car together, each totally distrusting the other, alternately stealing intense looks without the other person noticing). The final climactic scene with its brilliantly comedic script also had me LOLing, especially "So why don't you just drop the... AXE??" (as if to point out the hilarious note: who keeps an axe in their living room?).
If you enjoy subtle situational humor, as in other indie gems like "Buffalo 66", "Grand Theft Parsons" or "The Maiden Heist" (sorry I can't think of any popular films to compare this to, except maybe "Punch Drunk Love"), then don't miss "Don McKay".