Friday, May 25, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.15: Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 83 (A-)

Matchstick Men is the most underrated film of Ridley Scott’s filmography. Released in 2003, the film was a commercial disappointment, and although it was warmly received by most critics (Roger Ebert gave the film four stars), it hasn’t had the critical revival it deserves. It’s a shame, considering that it’s one of Scott’s warmest and most character-driven films. In a sense, it feels like one of Scott’s most autobiographical films: it’s a film about a man with alienating obsessions and obsessive focus on the littlest details.

Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) is a con man suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He’s agoraphobic, he’s ridden with crippling tics, and he’s bothered by the slightest diversion from routine. His partner and protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell) wants to go for a big score, but Roy is reluctant. When Roy visits a psychiatrist for the first time, he alludes to a past relationship that fell apart and the possibility that he has a child. When Roy finds out that he has a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), he takes her in, but when their relationship carries over to Roy’s work, it makes him more vulnerable.

Matchstick Men sees Scott working on a smaller scale than he had throughout the rest of the 2000s- it’s not a gargantuan period piece, it’s confined to one city (Los Angeles), and there are few big action set-pieces. But Scott sacrifices none of his signature style; if anything, the small scale highlights Scott’s talents better than many of his large-scale projects. More than ever, Scott uses his love of heavy shadows and shafts of light well for the film’s look, but here it’s more than just an atmospheric touch. Roy is a character who requires low lighting to function. The shafts of light are invasive and upsetting for him, particularly when a door opens and the light becomes outright blinding. Scott’s use of close-ups- on carpet stains, crumbs, and faces- highlights just how nerve-wracking life is for Roy. Scott also brings the more hurried editing of his past handful of films to the fray- he makes heavy use of jump cuts to highlight the film’s focus on process, be it regular routine (all-important to Roy) or the con game. Scott’s use of design is just as purposeful as ever- rather than ornate locations, Scott makes the mundane overwhelming, even distressing, as if to put us in Roy’s fractured mindset. There’s a meticulous focus no matter where we are in Ridley Scott’s world, and that’s what distinguishes Matchstick Men from other con movies.

Scott’s two primary influences- Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles- show up in the film’s meticulous nature and atmospheric lighting. The whole “con man” plot, meanwhile, is heavily in debt to a David Mamet film, where we can never know whether what we’re seeing is truth or part of a con. The film often plays like a knowing parody of a Mamet film (“for some people money is a foreign film without subtitles”. The film is much warmer and more emotional than Mamet’s cold exercises, however, and that’s where Scott brings in more modern influences. The film’s editing (heavy use of jump cuts, shots where the frame flips) recalls Steven Soderbergh’s work (The Limey, Soderbergh’s own con film Ocean’s Eleven). The film came out in close proximity to the Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze film Adaptation (also starring Cage), another film focused on process and existential crisis, and the similarities don’t feel coincidental. But most notably and thrillingly is the film’s similarities to Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, most notably the more empathetic con film Hard Eight and the outright loopy Punch-Drunk Love. Like Punch-Drunk Love, Matchstick Men features a loopy score that fits its protagonist, a lonely, anxiety-ridden basket case with no real relationships whose life is turned upside down.

Scott casts each role to perfection, from Bruce McGill’s boorish sucker to Beth Grant as a kindly old woman to PTA regular Melora Walters as Roy’s old flame. Sam Rockwell is a shrewd pick for a Cage protégé- he has the same quirky, off-kilter quality, but he’s less innately neurotic and more overtly brash. Rockwell plays the character as a likable, charismatic rogue with more stability than his boss, and who’s destined for better things than Roy.

Cage has become a bit of a punch-line in recent memory, but for two-and-a-half decades he was the most exciting, unpredictable, and talented actor of his generation (yes, over Sean Penn). Matchstick Men is part of a great run in the early-2000s (Adaptation, Lord of War, The Weather Man) before his career went off the rails (Bad Lieutenant notwithstanding). Cage’s role could easily fall into an easy tic-laden caricature a la Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets, but Cage brings a specificity to his wounded, sad-eyed character. Roy is a man ridden with a terrible disorder, but he feels so guilty for ripping off good people that. Cage finds a perfect balance between the smooth criminal and hopeless neurotic side of Roy in the film’s early going, and it makes his emotional connection to Angela more believable as the film goes on (the film’s “I used to drink” backstory feels a little contrived, as if the con man aspect weren’t enough to ruin a relationship, but it’s a minor complaint).

With Roy, Scott makes his most overt exploration of the nature of obsession in his filmography. Roy has no choice but to follow routine, and any break upsets him (his “uhhhh” whenever he’s presented with an impossible situation is priceless). Leaves in his pool upset him. Crumbs on the floor upset him. He’s frustrated by his disorder, but he has no control over it. He’s so upset that he wishes he could kill himself, but “if I blow my brains out, it’ll mess up my carpet”. He has no personal relationships because of his obsessions. When he and Angela meet, he has no idea how to relate to her, and his new fatherhood runs in line with his obsessive worrying in an alienating fashion. When he’s truly distressed and people bother him, he flips out (“have you ever been taken outside and beaten till you…PISSED BLOOD!”). But he’s a character with a conscience and a character who does want change, and it makes him worthy of redemption.

Alison Lohman’s performance as Angela is a revelation. Lohman has appeared in good movies since (Drag Me To Hell), but it’d be surprising if she ever topped her work here. 24 years old at the time but looking every bit of 14, she’s the strongest and freest character in a film full of men with few options (it makes sense that a Ridley Scott film would have the strongest character be a woman). Lohman’s giddy naiveté is intoxicating, and the father-daughter relationship with Cage features some of the most joyful moments in Scott’s filmography (a bowling-alley sequence set to Roxy Music’s “More Than This” is just gorgeous). She’s brings Roy redemption and a sense of responsibility, and it provides an emotional undercurrent missing from most con movies.

INEVITABLE SPOILERS: The fact that Angela isn’t really his daughter, but rather a part of Frank’s con is made heartbreaking by the real emotional connection between the two. The Bruce McGill con seems like a standard, if rousing, con game, but while attentive viewers might predict what’s really going to happen at the end, Scott shoots the late scenes effectively. The possibility that the characters are in real danger is palpable, so it’s wholly believable that Roy will try to protect his daughter and take the rap…for a fake crime. Matchstick Men’s warmth over other con movies is proven when Scott gives Roy an out- yeah, he got screwed, but he’s now more open with people, he has a steady job (as a carpet salesman, which is pretty hilarious considering his fixation on carpet stains), and he’s married with a kid on the way. But the film’s real climax is no doubt his final, unexpected confrontation with Lohman (now looking every bit of her 24 years)- there’s still warmth in the relationship, and nothing can sour that. “Don’t you want to know my name?”, she asks. His response: “I already do.”

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