2003Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman
o you expect me to hate Ridley Scott? I love Ridley Scott; or, rather, I love many of his movies, since it’s almost impossible to discern any information about the man himself from them, bar an apparent absolute reluctance to divulge any information. Alien was compellingly claustrophobic, intelligently and naturalistically acted, and its taut script insightful; and Thelma And Louise engagingly fun, a brilliant mix of the personal and the knowingly epic. And I love Blade Runner like I do few films; not just (just!) a genuinely philosophically interesting combination and redefinition of the film noir and science fiction genres, it creates an entire world through its dark skies, run-down alleyways, neon commercialism, and countless obscurely hinting details. But more: I find Someone To Watch Over Me a depressingly underrated, stylishly imaginative thriller; I think White Squall makes its Hollywood clichés mean something; and I even love the self-perpetuating splendour of Legend. (I really do; I think it’s brilliant.) And… and then there's Gladiator, with its ugly ostentation, its jerky fight scenes and overblown sentimentalism, the incompetent editing, and simply the constant procession of images that just look really bad; its inability not only to coherently suggest, well, anywhere (let alone Ancient Rome), but even to understand its own plot; and the way its frequently stirring lines are destroyed through acting, sound recording, and just general incompetence.
Which brings us to Matchstick Men, almost entirely separate from Scott’s previous work. While all his other movies are extravagant either in look or scale, Matchstick Men is modest, compact, and mostly anonymous. It’s another comic crime flick about a career criminal who has an unexpected personal quirk and forms a relationship or discovers who he really is or something. This is an unusually good variation of that subgenre: it’s Nicolas Cage as a con man (or, as he insists upon, “con artist) with an odd mix of obsessive compulsive disorder, severe generalised anxiety (with vague hints of social phobia), and various tics suggesting Tourette’s syndrome; through therapy, he discovers the existence of a fourteen year old daughter from a failed marriage, who ends up coming to live with him. Correspondingly, it’s stylistically almost invisible; Scott uses the glossy sheen of picture quality, the seamless precision of cinematography, and various techniques such as cleverly dramatic use of close-up and sudden refocusing, appropriate to this genre. It’ll remind different people of different films; personally, I thought most of Catch Me If You Can. Apart from the common slickness, and focus on con artists, they both have low-key, 1950s-ish soundtrack and score. And, remarkably, Matchstick Men is scored by Hans Zimmer - excellently, as it turns out, a pleasant surprise after his hollowly epic, wholly incongruous score for Gladiator played a major part in that film’s overall uselessness.
So Cage’s character, Roy (he has a surname, but that doesn’t matter), displays all these traits of various disorders. For example - he has to slam doors open and shut three times before he walks through them. His eyes bulge and blink suddenly and randomly. He sometimes stutters, or comes out with “urr… urr…” before he can speak. His OCD is most severe. He obsesses over the tiniest specks of dirt in his inauspiciously large and expensive house; when he spots two whole leaves in his swimming pool, he immediately fishes them out. It’s not an inherently funny predicament (the cheap laughs drawn from films like As Good As It Gets notwithstanding), and, thankfully, Scott avoids ever laughing at Roy. Instead, the mostly light comedy is well handled, jokes are made about obsessions and tics that don’t involve jeering “haw haw, obsessions and tics”, and the devastating effect it has on his life is sometimes brought out; in one brilliant line, Roy explains how “I spent all last week cleaning my carpet, all the while thinking that I should just take a gun and blow my brains out, but I didn't want to because I was worried what it would do to my carpet!” See: it’s compassionate, yet just insensitive enough - and funny.
(In case anyone’s thinking, “But hang on, he’s a con man - why do you want the movie to be sympathetic to him?” - well, firstly, unpleasantness is unpleasantness, whoever’s on the receiving end. And secondly - do you not know how these films work, or something?)
So Roy does spend a week cleaning his apartment, or at least a considerable period of time - it didn’t seem clear - when his unspecified medication runs out. At this point his partner-in-crime Frank, played by an unusually restrained Sam Rockwell, gets him to see a psychoanalyst, which is when he recalls his ex-wife being pregnant when she left him, which is how he discovers he has a daughter. To repeat what everyone else has said: yes, it’s Alison Lohman; yes, she’s 24; and yes, she’s fascinatingly convincing as a fourteen year old - exaggerated, yes, but that’s strangely appropriate. When she arrives in Roy’s home and immediately proceeds to throw her possessions everywhere, shattering his sense of security - but it’s a funny scene - it was convincing enough almost to make me not notice how unrealistic this behaviour is. The growing relationship is quite movingly handled, and helped by Cage’s brilliant gradual transformation from anxiety and distrust to rejuvenated enjoyment. Scott allows himself a little visual ostentation to depict the unstable way Roy sees the world while mid-panic attack, and it works - and such moments imperceptibly stop occurring. Inevitably, the daughter, Angela (what sort of name is Angela for a fourteen year old? - never mind), joins Roy on first minor and then major jobs, in exuberantly fun scenes. Roy generally becomes less irritating and more sympathetic, and starts to consider the nature of his career path, the amorality involved, and how it may have resulted in his paranoia, his lack of friendships, his state of mind.
And, obviously, there are cons involved. An initial small one, used to introduce characters and setting, and one large one, I suppose the driving force for the movie - or, more correctly, one of several. Matchstick Men isn’t a very united or coherent film; sub-plots seem to be picked up, dropped, and ignored, at will. What’s more, you’re seemingly asked to sympathise with Roy without thinking about it - but this might well be a strength, in that you’re asked to see and to judge his profession on its own terms. (Although it might be an attempt to ignore the implications of the story - there were certainly countless far more heinous examples of this in, y’know, Gladiator). It’s a con movie; so there are twists, and some things aren’t what they seem, and so on. It’s entertainingly told. Until the ending.
No spoilers except this: near the end, it suddenly cuts to the legend “One Year Later” - which essentially means “In our inability to think of a satisfactory conclusion, we’ve decided instead to break all the continuity and immersion of the past hour and three quarters”. Okay, so there’s one clever overturning of Hollywood convention. But there’s also uninteresting moralism and sappiness. And - well, I wish I could explain more, but certain elements are somewhat disturbing, not to mention incoherent. The problem is, it appears not to be tacked on, but instead to be where the film was meant to lead to from the very beginning. Unfortunately, this leads to necessary recontextualisation, since the later knowledge lends different interpretations to many earlier events. It’s far from fatal, and doesn’t stop most good things from staying good - but enough of the movie is based on the assumption that situations and relationships will be tied up, and that an appropriate conclusion reached, for it to do significant damage.
But - well - for the most part, it works.
By: Dan Emerson
Published on: 2003-10-10