Few movies go down as smoothly as Southern crime capers. A bag of money, a handful of idiot criminals, and infidelity make for a raucous time. The best of hard-boiled crime fiction expertly balances atmosphere and characters to create something unique. LaRoy is just that, oozing with energy and comedic sensibilities. Director Shane Atkinson‘s debut is not only perfectly pitched, but combines vision Western tropes to create a neo-western worthy of its gunslinging heritage.
Ray (John Magaro) gets bad news from an amateur private eye named Skip (Steve Zahn). Ray’s wife, Stacey-Lynn (Megan Stevenson), has been meeting someone at a seedy motel. Fearing the worst, Ray goes to confront her, but instead decides to turn the gun on himself. Just before he pulls the trigger, a man jumps into the car and gives him money for a hit. Soon after, the case of mistaken identity leaves Ray and Skip on a goose chase for an even larger payday. Unfortunately, the hitman (Dylan Baker) wants his cut.
LaRoy seeming starts and resets the table early in its runtime but soon reveals the pieces and ethos were always coming together. It feels pulled from the pulp racks of a used bookstore and bursts through the screen with confidence. Atkinson lets his actors lift up the material. Yet the ways he scripts the relationships with witty dialogue makes chemistry easy to come by. It’s a perfect combination of material and ensemble, with each character leaving an impression.
The lived-in nature of LaRoy helps establish the town quickly. The men visit strip clubs, but there’s a different seedy motel. A pair of brothers can run a small-town hardware store. The car salespeople cheat everyone, and the lawyers are corrupt. The local detectives openly feud with the private eye. Everyone seems to know everyone, if not literally, through a friendship with a family member. The world that Atkinson frames brims with authenticity and allows his performers to simply react to the world.
As Atkinson lets the hospitality of Texas take center stage, it allows some of his actors to stretch their comedic muscles. Zahn once felt like a surefire superstar, but over time, he retreated to work with his friends. It was a wise move, because every role he seems to get better. Throughout LaRoy, he sells the funnier and more absurd moments with his facial reactions. He flexes his charm, and while we know he has a penchant for dopey choices, Zahn nails the idiot-savant energy.
Zahn also plays well with the surprisingly deep turn from Magaro. The brilliant First Cow actor showcases incredible emotion, despite his sad-sack vibes. The tragedy and hurt he brings to the screen is palpable. Like John C. Reilly in Chicago, you question who would want to harm this man. Yet Magaro brings enough of an edge that his dark side seems to simmer behind every decision. Finally caught in a situation that would call for him to change course, Magaro adds a feeling of levity to the character that turns him into a loveable protagonist.
Meanwhile, from the moment Baker steps into the frame, we know to be terrified. The character actor thrives in the role, channeling the special kind of menace rarely displayed. Like M. Emmett Walsh in Blood Simple, there’s a hokey charm to the man, even when we know he’s the most dangerous man in the story.
Meanwhile, a cavalcade of other actors enrich the ensemble. Stevenson gets the most screentime of the bunch, in part because her emotional payoff becomes necessary. Matthew Del Negro brings a perfect amount of arrogance to the older-brother role. Brad LeLand plays up the folksy charm, even with a gun in his hand. Galadriel Stineman brings an “I’ve Had Enough of this crap” energy that nearly steals the movie. Even a two-scene sequence with Darcy Shean becomes a rosetta stone to understanding our protagonists.
For Atkinson, the only issue might require cutting a few scenes from the story to keep the runtime down. However, LaRoy feels like a fun mystery crime novel, and that energy carries throughout. Atkinson instantly becomes a must-watch director, as the cast he assembled already recognizes his potential greatness. With any luck, that will come very soon.