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A moody, mysterious hitman. A woman fleeing her abusive husband. A police detective looking for love.

Their paths converge in The Merry Gentleman, a sly and surprisingly sublime little noir romance, which marks the directing debut of Michael Keaton.

Keaton stars as Frank Logan, the quiet man with the telescopic rifle who makes his living killing people. But Frank's experiencing a crisis: The murder business has turned him sad, suicidal.

In fact, one snowy evening, he's ready to hurl himself from a building. At the same moment, Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald), leaving her new job, looks up and gives a yelp. Her scream startles Frank - he falls backward onto the roof.

And then he falls in love.

Macdonald (Josh Brolin's trailer-park missus in No Country for Old Men) gets to keep her musical Scots accent here, making her all the more beguiling as she improvises various explanations for her black-and-blue eye. (Back-slapped into a telescope is one.)

And then there's Det. Murcheson (Tom Bastounes), called to investigate the possible jumper - and sticking around, using (actually misusing) his badge to get a date with Kate.

Set over the Christmas season, and teeming with questions about God, religion, trust, and love (the title references the yuletide carol "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen"), The Merry Gentleman should be a star-maker for Macdonald. Her work is charming, but full of emotional resonance, too.

The cinematography is striking, and Keaton - looking lean and keen-eyed - brings poignancy to his portrait of a lonely, love-starred man. He's not merry, this Frank, but this modest film should bring smiles of satisfaction to its audiences' faces.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.