If we’re lucky, when we start in this life, we approach it with a spark, an excitement for what’s to come. This could be pursuing a passion, exploring an idea, or just getting out of a dead-end town and away from the terror of an uneventful, uninspired life. But what happens when we get older and realize that all the promise we foresaw for ourselves is gone and has left us dead inside, doomed to a life very ordinary, built upon broken dreams and scraps of happiness. Writer/first-time director Shane Atkinson mines this concept for his neo-western LaRoy, a sad and somber, hilarious and heartfelt neo-western whose protagonist faces the hard truths of his life in a mixture of metaphorical and ethical quandaries that places him in the path of a killer, having its world premiere at Tribeca 2023.
Dour and quiet Ray Jepsen (John Magaro) lives in the small, nowhere town of LaRoy, co-running the family-owned hardware business with his charismatic older brother, Junior (Matthew Del Negro), trying to keep his former beauty queen wife, Stacy-Lynn (Megan Stevenson), happy as she pursues her dream of owning her own beauty salon. On a regular day like any other, things start to change for Ray when an old friend of Junior’s, Skip (Steve Zahn), invites Ray to eat, disclosing to him that Stacy-Lynn is having an affair. The news itself is a bombshell, and one that inadvertently changes Ray’s life in ways he couldn’t possibly foresee involving sex, murder, and the truth. Setting him on a path, once started, Ray has no choice but to see through to the end.
For a directorial debut, Atkinson comes out swinging with LaRoy. Before exploring LaRoy, before meeting Ray, Atkinson introduces us to an existential threat that takes the form of Dylan Baker’s (Outpost) Harry, an unassuming man whose particular talents, wits, and intensity enable him to surprise the audience as much as everyone else in the picture. It’s a hell of a choice to start with Harry versus Ray, opting to get the audience more familiar with a hitman rather than our main player, but it’s a specificity that communicates greater danger than anything else Ray will face. Thus, Atkinson’s script, through its winding mystery of small-town politics, lies, and thieves, a greater story takes shape about what one is willing to do in the short time they are alive. If one prescribes to a western notion of gunslingers, then there’s an understanding that somewhere out there is a bullet, not yet fired, that is waiting for you. This personalizes and personifies the concept of death and how, even when we can’t see it, it’s waiting for you. Tomorrow is uncertain. Today is not guaranteed. Even this very moment could be your last. Therefore, the introduction of Harry immediately shrouds the film with a quiet terror as we wait for Harry and Ray to intersect, their stories separate and yet destined (by Atkinson) to collide. They may not know it, but we do, and that amplifies the action and drama once we do meet Ray, armed only with the knowledge that death is coming, and it’s driving a tan sedan.
Much of the success of what follows post-introduction falls on Magaro (First Cow). His performance is delicate and open to interpretation. He plays Ray as someone who wants more, wants better, but isn’t greedy or over-reaching. Through text and performance, Ray comes off as someone without the confidence to challenge anything that would rock the boat. Where the performance comes in is that it’s hard to get a read on Ray as purposely submissive, willfully ignorant, or stupid. Ray’s choices throughout the film, and the way Magaro presents the character throughout the film, allow plenty of room for the audience to fill the space with ample arguments for any of the three. What’s great about the way Atkinson’s script plays is how the answer is meted out in drips, enabling Magaro room to stretch in a variety of ways throughout. Teaming the actor with Zahn (Sahara/War for the Planet of the Apes) is smart as Zahn’s got a comedic gift in terms of verbal and physical delivery that makes Skip a little unpredictable even though the character is, perhaps, the most grounded of anyone in the film. Pairing the two together enables Magaro’s tightly-wound Ray to come off as the straight man and enables the script to have a series of comedic moments that are authentic to the scene. One such sequence makes CPR funnier than it has any right to be, especially with Ray’s ultra-politeness and Skip’s excitability. This makes their continual friction (Ray as the aggrieved husband, Skip as the private detective trying to prove he can do the job), strangely joyful, and the slow hunt by Harry all the more haunting.
Though LaRoy possesses familiar notes of films like No Country for Old Men (2007) or Hell or High Water (2016), Atkinson’s story deserves it’s own place on the shelf next to them all. It doesn’t just take the audience on a frequently surprising and gripping ride, it does so while never taking its eyes off the themes it explores. Death comes for us all, so what will you do to enjoy what time you have? Will you use that time to hurt someone? To avail yourself of riches? Will you lead with kindness and gratitude? Considering the generally low stakes that make up the bulk of LaRoy, the depth of thematic meaning for audiences to chew on comes as a great revelation and with no cost to the entertainment value.
Screened during Tribeca Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Tribeca Film Festival 2023 LaRoy page.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.