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Matchstick Men (2003)

12 May 2004 by Gnoll No Comment

MATCHSTICK MEN


2003, dir. Ridley Scott
116 min. Rated PG-13.
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell, Bruce Altman.

Review by Gnoll

When I look up to the sky I see your eyes, a funny kind of yellow…

If you were like me, your biggest disappointment regarding MATCHSTICK MEN was the lack of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” (or the Camper Van Beethoven cover) on the soundtrack. Not that it matters, because now that I’m writing about the film, I’ll have the friggin’ song stuck in my head for the rest of the day. And if I’m going down, you’re coming with me.

Rush home to bed, I soak my head, I see your face underneath my pillow…

But it’s okay, because MATCHSTICK MEN is a really good movie. Far better than I had expected, and for a lot of reasons. I’ve always been kind of spotty on the work of Ridley Scott, as I was thoroughly unimpressed with BLADE RUNNER and think ALIEN is one of the weaker films in that series, and let’s not even touch G.I.JANE or one of the most overrated Oscar-winners ever, GLADIATOR. But He certainly has a style to him, and when he’s on, he’s definitely on. And with MATCHSTICK MEN, he’s certainly on.

I wake next morning, I’m still yawning, I see your face looking through my window…

But who’s more on (which sounds like “Moron” but that’s totally not the intent here) is Nicolas Cage, who turns in his second jaw-dropping performance in a row, following 2002’s brilliant ADAPTATION. Cage plays a con artist (don’t call him a con man) named Roy Waller, who has nervous tics, is obsessive-compulsive and agoraphobic, and smokes incessantly. The character’s not an easy one to nail, but Cage does it. Apparently, Cage loved the character so much that he optioned the Eric Garcia novel upon which the film is based before it was even published, and it shows. It’s a great character, and Cage has never been better in capturing it.

Pictures of matchstick men and you, Images of matchstick men and you, Alls I ever see is them and you…

Roy has been playing the con game all his life, and is pretty darn good at it. He takes a lot of pride in what he does for a living, particularly in that he never uses violence and that he never takes anything but rather has things given to him. He has a partner, an apprentice if you will, by the name of Frank, played by Sam Rockwell (also coming off an impressive performance in CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND.) When we meet the duo, they’re laying low, working small-time telephone scams. But Roy’s tics are overwhelming him, and his regular doctor seems to have skipped town. Frank recommends that he see a therapist named Dr. Klein, who takes a new approach to Roy’s mental issues.

Windows echo your reflection When I look in their direction, now…

Roy reveals that he last had a relationship fifteen years ago, and that relationship may have yielded a child. Through the efforts of Dr. Klein, Roy is reunited with his daughter Angela. At first, their meetings are awkward and only seem to make Roy’s mental state worse, but eventually they form a bond that seems to uplift both of them. Roy can’t keep up the “I run an antique business” lie forever with an omnipresent fourteen-year-old, so he eventually has to let Angela in on some of the finer points of what he does.

There’re faces haunting me, Your face just won’t leave me alone…

For a while there, MATCHSTICK MEN becomes a different movie. The relationship between Roy and Angela develops nicely, and it almost seems like it’s going to stop being a con movie. But all the while, it is still a con movie, and things build up to a terrific twist. And this is where talking about the film gets difficult, lest I break out the spoilers. But since I really don’t want to do that, instead I’ll save this space for a little rant about the “I saw it coming a mile away!” crowd:

Pictures of matchstick men and you, Images of matchstick men and you, Alls I ever see is them and you…

Maybe you did. But if you did, it’s only because you read a review like this one that mentions that one exists, and spent the entirety of your time watching searching for it. Don’t sit there and pretend that you’re the most astute person to ever pony up 8 bucks to sit in a theater or press play on a DVD player because you “figured it out.” Chances are that you didn’t figure it out, and you’re just saying so because you went to some internet message board and didn’t want to feel dumber than the horde of thirteen-year-old shut-ins who feel the need to type “Oh d00d that wuz SOOO Perdictable!!!!111.” I guarantee that if you went in to this film knowing nothing about the twist, you’d never have expected it. For the record, that’s how I went into the movie, and was not only surprised when it happened, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. But maybe that’s why I don’t read reviews of movies I’ve not seen unless I don’t ever plan on seeing them.

You’re in the sky, You’re with the sky, You make men cry…

But while discussing that aspect of the film, while the twist works very well, it wasn’t even a necessary element. MATCHSTICK MEN is brilliant as a character study, and the plot actually kind of gets in the way. Maybe this is what Ridley Scott has been doing wrong for so long. The films of his that I really liked, such as THELMA AND LOUISE, aren’t the big action films he’s best-known for. They’re personal and character-driven. Perhaps if Mr. Scott made more films like MATCHSTICK MEN, I might hold his body of work in a higher regard.

You are, you’re in the sky, You’re with the sky, You make men cry…

MATCHSTICK MEN is one of those rare movies that just seems to do just about everything right. The performances are all perfect, the chemistry is there, the story is interesting without being contrived, and the direction is subtle enough to make it all work without overshadowing it. The fact that Alison Lohman and Nicolas Cage weren’t nominated for Oscars last year was certainly a con in itself.

Pictures of matchstick men . . .

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