Shane Atkinson’s debut sets itself in the ever-so-small town of LaRoy. Ray (John Magaro) is a man living the simple life, married to the local beauty-pageant queen and working at his family’s hardware store alongside his brother, Junior (Matthew Del Negro). He’s not unhappy, but not quite happy either. His existence depends on raising enough money for his wife Stacy-Lynn (Megan Stevenson) to open a salon. Her happiness results in his own happiness. Unfortunately, she’s not happy––at least not with Ray.
An unabashed quasi-homage to the Coen brothers, LaRoy concerns a case of mistaken identity. Ray happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and so when he’s assumed to be a hitman he obliges. As the confusion and dead bodies begin stacking up, Ray and his friend-turned-private eye Skip (Steve Zahn) must solve the plethora of crimes that lay in their wake. Atkinson’s film is rarely unfunny, often clever, and happy to wade through the throes of this small town with these likable leads.
It’s a movie that could have been made 25 years ago, a throwback to films that Atkinson likely loves and cherishes. It plays like a comic Western, with Skip looking the part, wearing a cowboy hat and a bolo tie as he waltzes around town talking about his early track record as an investigator. There’s one bar, one car dealership, one hardware store––the list goes on. Such sense of place stays true for Atkinson’s story, providing a living backdrop against its half-drawn characters. When these portraits of people falter, the town of LaRoy picks them up.
Currently on an indie hot streak with Showing Up and Past Lives, Magaro remains the central protagonist yet struggles in this part. It isn’t a fault of his timing, but rather a simple miscasting: Ray is often unsentimental, directly opposing Magaro’s sensibility in previous roles. He doesn’t completely work, even if he’s played a sad sack or two in his day.
Opposite Magaro is Zahn, born to play a character like Skip. Lovable and slightly grating, Skip has both sweltering confidence and an understanding that many people see him as a joke. Zahn completely takes the movie over, using it as a vehicle for his comedic chops alongside his tender receptivity––he oscillates between a sympathetic figure and the true hero of this story. Zahn’s warm zaniness, and his ability to unapologetically sport a cowboy hat, becomes LaRoy’s most successful asset.
Surrounding these two actors is a treasure trove of bit players, with Brad Leland and Dylan Baker setting themselves apart as a dealership owner and the true hitman, respectively. Leland seems content, as audiences will likely agree, to reinvent his character from Friday Night Lights, a riff on Buddy Garrity that only brings enjoyment to the picture. Baker brings himself fully to the film, menacing in his quiet performance, terrifying amidst this full-fledged comedy.
LaRoy is the work of a director with unmistakable joy for this genre, approaching the material with a welcome earnestness. Letting Zahn run wild and elevating him into the spotlight when necessary, it becomes the talented actor’s film, a showcase for the flair and feeling he can imbue into a story. Even if LaRoy doesn’t feel wholly original, it’s further proof the independent film scene is undoubtedly better with Zahn in it.
LaRoy premiered at the Tribeca Festival.