– In his feature debut, Shane Atkinson lets some small-town folk attempt to escape their dreary, dead-end existences
John Magaro (left) and Steve Zahn in LaRoy
Challenging the status quo and messing with life can either take you to new heights or bring the whole house crashing down. In LaRoy, US director Shane Atkinson’s feature debut after a series of shorts, a group of small-town citizens bite off more than they can chew, as a murder and a pile of stolen money turn their sleepy world upside down.
With its world premiere having taken place back in June at the Tribeca Film Festival, LaRoy is now showing at the 61st Viennale. Opening with banjo- and guitar-heavy country music, the film leads us into the backcountry of Texas, to a town with which the movie shares its name. Here, it’s more dusty streets than big-city lights. The heart of the town is a shabby bar and diner, where self-proclaimed cowboys with broad-brimmed hats and tight boots nurse a beer or a coffee, unwilling to escape the perpetual absence of economic prospects in rural USA.
One such citizen, a sensitive loner who works in a hardware store and whom many, amongst them himself, would call a pushover, is Ray Repsen (John Magaro). Stumbling along in blissful ignorance, he joins wannabe detective Skip (Steve Zahn) for a quick bite, where the latter drops a bombshell on him. His wife, former beauty queen Stacy Lynn (Megan Stevenson), is cheating on him. Ray, already fed up with the unfulfilling job that he shares with his arrogant brother Junior (Matthew Del Negro) and now emasculated by this information, decides enough is enough and sets out to kill himself.
But before he can pull the trigger in an empty parking lot, a stranger enters the car with a doggy bag full of money and a job for him. He has to kill the lawyer James Barlow. Ray, desperate to prove that he is not a pushover, takes the job. And with a bit of dumb luck and a messy clean-up operation, he succeeds. But this is only the start of the problems. This was never his job to begin with. The actual designated killer, Harry (Dylan Baker), has come to town, and he wants to be compensated for his efforts, all in vain. And then there is the issue of the money: $250,000 are missing from Barlow’s safe, and everybody is out to find them.
Along the way as we navigate this eventful riddle, there’s an abundance of misunderstandings, fragile male egos and bleeding corpses. Atkinson never overloads this pitch-black comedy with dreary notes or gritty realism. LaRoy is bathed in warm, sunny yellows, in country music tunes and friendly grins plastered across the faces of the citizens of what seems like a dreamy town where one can unwind. But it is a town in which a woman like Stacy Lynn has already peaked as a beauty queen and has since fallen into oblivion. It’s a place where someone like Ray usually accepts his lot of being a reliable, unrespectable nobody, and where guys like Junior always know how to play the system.
When these notions are challenged and the dice of destiny are thrown again, a chain reaction of catastrophes and other events is triggered. Some of them are laugh-out-loud funny, such as when Skip and Ray try to interrogate a work colleague of Barlow’s. Some of them are touching, such as when the tough-as-nails Harry tells a waitress that she does not have to take up with some guys harassing her while she works. “If we want people to respect us, we need to give them a reason.” Getting respect, and turning the tables on the lack of prospects, might be a noble cause. But as Atkinson shows with lots of heart and subtle humour, the dream of making it big and further cementing some kind of masculine raison d’être can only backfire in a country like this, unprepared as it is to deal with its underbelly.