' ' Cinema Romantico: LaRoy, Texas

Monday, June 03, 2024

LaRoy, Texas

Shane Atkinson’s semi-comic neo-noir “LaRoy, Texas” opens with Harry (Dylan Baker) picking up a hitchhiker whose car has broken down on some desolate highway. At first, Harry is reluctant to stop, then apprehensive once he does, and once the hitchhiker gets in the car, he exudes a menacing air. This is what we expect, of course, and this is why the sequence is designed to test our expectations, as the whole thing flips, and the opposite turns out to be true. Harry is a crucial character in the ensuing movie, but this comes across like a standalone prologue, nonetheless, introducing “LaRoy, Texas’s” overriding idea that appearances can be deceiving. A hoary chestnut, true, and “LaRoy, Texas” is not here to reinvent Lone Star barbecue, sort of semi-reimagining The Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” as “No Country for Schmucks,” or something. It’s never to the level of that movie, but often enjoyable enough in its own right, a murder mystery in which the mystery is essentially right in the open, turning it into something else, a question of character, though for that one, “LaRoy, Texas” doesn’t quite have an answer.

Harry has come to LaRoy to kill a local businessman in exchange for a few thousand dollars. Through a misunderstanding, meek hardware store owner Ray (John Magaro) gets offered the job instead and takes it even if he is so unqualified for the task that upon buying a gun, he finds himself clarifying that he needs a short one. Frequently costumed in a standard-issue hardware store polo and played by Magaro with drooped posture and a voice as perpetual whine, he wants to prove he’s not the schmo he is assumed to be by everyone, including his own wife, Stacy-Lynn (Megan Stevenson), a one-time beauty queen who is cheating on him with his own brother (Matthew Del Negro). If it seems questionable that a former beauty queen might end up married to Ray, “LaRoy, Texas” smartly saves that explanation for late, reducing it to one line that is a gut punch, re-calibrating everything Ray thought he know. Even more crucially, that one line evokes how people just sort of sit on difficult truths, content to keep them emotionally buried.

Stacy-Lynn also dreams of opening a hair salon, and so Ray sees the cash offered from the case of mistaken identity as a conduit to financing her business and saving his marriage, desperation comingling with foolishness. It’s a ridiculous thought on his half, of course, and Atkinson treats it that way, portraying Ray tailing his target from place to place in pitifully comic terms, like a dog chasing a car, and once he comes face to face with his target, not really having any idea what to do. A struggle ensues and he kills the businessman more from self-defense than on purpose, completing the job on accident, essentially, but also leaving behind a photo of his wife, inadvertently getting her charged with the killing. And all the while, Harry hovers on the periphery, like Anton Chigurh of “No Country for Old Men” if Anton Chigurh looked like an insurance adjustor.

Ray’s unwanted and overeager co-detective is Skip (Steve Zahn), dressing in a bolo tie and cowboy hat for the job he technically has, private detective, even though he hardly qualifies as one, as intent on proving his credentials as Ray is at proving he’s not a pushover. Their emergent friendship is the movie’s best element, personified in a ham-handed interrogation scene in which Skip keeps dunking their interrogee’s head in a toilet, causing him to pass out, and then needing Ray, the only one of the two who knows CPR, to resuscitate him. It’s also evocative of how “LaRoy, Texas” blurs comedy and tragedy to the breaking point; after all, Ray is, in effect, attempting to solve a murder he committed, the wrongfully accused trope turned on its head. Ultimately, though, “LaRoy, Texas” cannot quite decide which one it truly is, comedy or tragedy, its character the butt of a cosmic joke or someone sealing his own fate, and rather than run out of gas, it just kind of comes to a fork in the road, shrugs, and sits down in the middle.

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