Like Tim Burton's Ed Wood, Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men works because it takes a usually frenetic, high-octane filmmaker, and brings him down a few notches to the level of real, human storytelling. A film revolving around con men - Roy (Nicolas Cage) and Frank (Sam Rockwell) - is bound to be clever and comedic, but what sets Matchstick Men apart is the emotional payoff and the realizations the characters make by the end of the film.

While Cage and Rockwell receive equal billing here, it is clearly the former who has more to do. Rockwell's Frank is the partner and protege of Cage's Roy; he's the fiery young gun who keeps trying convince the old-timer of pulling off one more job. The earlier scenes show the two executing small-time cons, but Roy's psychological issues, starting with his obsessive-compulsive disorder, begin to bleed into his work.

It is only when Frank convinces Roy to see Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman) that he begins to see his life in a new light. Roy is forced to confront the issues of his failed marriage with Heather (Melora Walters), and he learns that the two had a daughter together years ago he never knew about: the 14-year-old Angela (a very charming Alison Lohman). Roy is able to work up the courage to meet her one day for lunch. They get along like old pals who have everything to catch up on.

Roy and Frank get an opportunity for a big-time score when Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill) enters the picture. By this time, Roy is feeling much better about himself because he has admitted his profession to his daughter, and it has made their relationship better. Angela turns out to be naturally deceptive, and as she so joyously says to her father, "I guess I didn't only get your elbows." Roy teaches her to trick an old lady with a used lottery ticket and, much more impulsively, decides to use her in the Frechette con.

The beauty of Matchstick Men is in the film's relationships, the emotions they provoke, and the realizations they bring to light. Roy doesn't think he has any choice but to become a retired, worn-out con man, but when he feels how happy Angela makes him, he starts to wonder if there is more to life than money and pills. Maybe love, or even just human contact, is the only possible prescription for him.

There is an unwritten rule for almost every Nic Cage role and that is this: it will be bold. Maybe that doesn't work for some of you, but for the character of Roy, there is no possible way it could have been played as effectively in a calmer manner. This is a character with ticks, with agoraphobia, with the need to open and close every door three times, and with the occasional verbal outburst. He is loud, perhaps even annoying for some, but, more importantly, he is memorable.

There is a particular session in which Dr. Klein labels his patient a criminal. Roy replies quickly and assuredly, "I'm not a criminal. I'm a con man." And the character's brilliant rationalization which follows is one of the film's defining moments. It makes you realize that this is not one of those con men films which glorifies the potential benefits of the profession. Instead, it is one that deals with the logic of the characters. Deep down, Roy knows what he is doing is wrong, but his rationalization is perfectly logical, and we can see how sad this man must be to have convinced himself of that.

Some accuse the film of having too "tidy" of a finish, but for the points the film is trying to make, it couldn't have been orchestrated any better. Matchstick Men is one of those films for which repeated viewings come instantly to mind; it deserves them, and they are sure to be enjoyable and rewarding.  

What a pleasure it is to see Ridley Scott step outside the realm of dynamic action. It's not that he isn't good at it, just like it's not that Burton isn't a brilliant visual composer. But sometimes when a director steps outside their area of expertise, newfound abilities come to life. And this time, it is Scott's emotional and thematic purposes that hit home.


Fitz said...

An under-appreciated film to say in the least. Cage tones down the throttle for an excellent performance.

Alfindeol said...

I really enjoyed Matchstick Men. I think Sam Rockwell had a lot to do with that, but I agree that the relationships here are pretty touching.

The "you might like" feature at the bottom is interesting too. I have see two of those films and I loved one (Up in the Ait) and thought the other was underwhelming (Crazy Heart).

Danny King said...

@ Fitz: Compared to some of his other roles, it is a bit toned down, but it still has his signature "boldness."

@ Alfindeol: Rockwell is a consistently great actor, it's been a pleasure to see the work he has been getting of late.

And I added that "you might like" feature recently, I think it can make for a convenient navigational tool. Sometimes it takes a while to conform to the current post, but it's not that big of a deal. I had similar feelings regarding both of those films.

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