Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Ray feels like a real person plunged into an increasingly absurd situation, which is ultimately the source of a lot of the film’s comedy and its sometime tragedy."

Comparisons to the work of the Coen brothers are made too often in film criticism, but sometimes a film comes along regarding which it is entirely appropriate, where a particular blend of quirkiness, pitch black comedy and heart is matched by compelling performances and easy visual flair. LaRoy is such a film, and although director Shane Atkinson may not be a serious threat to the brothers’ status as yet, there is enough here to guarantee fans of that style a thoroughly good time.

It begins with two men in a car. One has broken down and hitched a lift with the other. They chat, and their conversation gradually turns to the subject of how risky it is to pick up a hitchhiker on a lonely road at night. Then again, could the risk be the other way round? Though all we do is watch them talk, it’s a gripping scene which sets the stage nicely and will send a shiver down your spine.

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Cut to the small town of LaRoy, Texas. Two men are talking in a diner. Skip (Steve Zahn), an erstwhile private detective dressed like a Hollywood cowboy, is showing Ray (John Magaro), a small business owner, pictures of his ex-beauty queen wife Stacey-Lynn (Megan Stevenson) which supposedly prove that she’s cheating on him. Skip is looking to get hired. He’s expecting that Ray will want to follow up, will want some form of retribution, will at the very least be looking for a divorce. Ray is just heartbroken. He doesn’t want to believe that it’s true, but everything points to it. Stacey-Lynn is always disappointed in him. She’s trying to raise the money to open a beauty salon and he wishes he could make her dream come true. Then, that night, whilst he’s thinking about suicide, a stranger gets into his car and deposits several thousand dollars in his lap. He has been mistaken for a hitman, and he begins to wonder if the solution to his problems could lie in becoming one.

This is only the beginning of a complicated journey in which we are always aware of the shadow of a real hitman lurking in the background. Ray and Skip form an unlikely bond as the former begins to discover just how thoroughly he has been exploited and the latter strives to be relevant. The characters are wonderfully detailed and played with a verve which makes them all interesting even if we only see them for a few minutes – like the police officers who appear and reappear just to screw people over for a laugh. Stacey-Lynn is relentlessly horrible to Ray, yet her conviction that she’s always the one who has been wronged, and her own desperation to matter, gives her a strange kind of innocence. For his part, Ray feels like a real person plunged into an increasingly absurd situation, which is ultimately the source of a lot of the film’s comedy and its sometime tragedy.

As various characters double cross each other in pursuit of a missing bag of money, the stakes keep rising. Atkinson deftly balances the resulting tension with the laid back vibe of the town itself, where crumbling industrial buildings hint at better days gone by and everybody seems to be being screwed over by somebody, yet there’s still room for tenderness between lovers, work colleagues and neighbours. There are too many twists and the film would have worked better if a few of the less significant characters had been removed, giving others room to make more of an impression, but Magaro and Zahn hold the centre ground well and keep us rooting for their characters, even when they are at odds with each other.

As a first feature, LaRoy exhibits both confidence and style, and certainly merits its place in the Tribeca 2023 line-up. Atkinson still has a few things to learn, but this is a highly enjoyable piece of work.

Reviewed on: 10 Jun 2023
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After discovering his wife’s affair, Ray Jepsen plans to kill himself, but fate intervenes. Through a bizarre turn of events, he is mistaken for a low-rent hired killer and decides to become one.

Director: Shane Atkinson

Writer: Shane Atkinson

Starring: John Magaro, Steve Zahn, Dylan Baker, Megan Stevenson, Matthew Del Negro, Brad Leland

Year: 2023

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: US, France

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