Mark Reviews Movies


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman, Bruce McGill

MPAA Rating:  (for thematic elements, violence, some sexual content and language)

Running Time: 2:00

Release Date: 9/12/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

I got conned twice by Matchstick Men, but I hesitate to reveal any more than that. In fact, I somewhat regret even typing the first part of that sentence. It's a joy to be grifted the first time by director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Nicholas and Ted Griffin (adapting Eric Garcia's novel) and absolutely infuriating the second. I cannot get into specifics; it would be unfair. I will only say that the film seems to be one thing, and by the end (either through subtle turns in the plot, a surprise ending, both, or neither—I will not say), it has become something entirely new. The resulting item at once begs to be taken both literally and figuratively, as we scratch our heads, realize exactly what has passed, and understand that it is a brilliant turn of events. In plotting, it makes us question everything we've seen. It also just makes sense; it is the only possible outcome. In theme, it makes us question everything we felt. It's a reflection of film's magic ability to con us suckers watching still images move at twenty-four frames per second on a white screen and actually believe to one degree or another that we've been swept away. Then the film goes on for another ten minutes or so and shoots down most of that.

Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) is an obsessive-compulsive con artist who has hit a career lull. He and his apprentice Frank (Sam Rockwell) have been selling overpriced water-filtration systems with the bogus promise of a fabulous prize to lonely old women and housewives looking to surprise their husbands. It's small potatoes compared to their more lucrative scams, and Roy is having trouble keeping his mental quirks out of the workplace, especially now that he's run out of medication and his doctor has unexpectedly left town. Frank recommends Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), a psychiatrist with a solid reputation, to help keep Roy working, because without him, Frank makes no money. Dr. Klein not only puts Roy on an experimental new medication to help with his situation but also makes an effort to uncover the reasons behind his condition. There is, of course, his ex-wife, who left him before he sobered up. She was pregnant at the time, and Roy wonders what has become of his child. Dr. Klein arranges a meeting between Roy and his fourteen-year-old daughter Angela (Alison Lohman), who is having problems of her own at home.

The relationship between father and daughter develops naturally amid the progression of Roy and Frank's plan to dupe a rich businessman named Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill) involving the exchange of American currency for higher value British notes. At first, Roy and Angela start off uncomfortably. She has questions he can't answer, and he has no idea of where to begin relating to a child. Slowly but surely, this chain-smoking tic machine, who barks like a dog, makes loud groans of confusion when lost for words, and twitches incessantly, becomes an endearing father. Angela is bewitched by the enigma of this man, who says he sells antiques but has thousands in cash and a gun hidden within a tacky dog statue that barks when you remove its head. He—never having a personal relationship with any woman since his ex-wife—is also intrigued by this young girl, who presents a new challenge and a chance to atone for his past transgressions. Inevitably, Angela learns the truth about her father's profession and not surprisingly wants to learn some tricks of her own. This sets the stage for a wonderful sequence that serves as a chance for bonding, a display of skill, and a precursor for the con games that will follow.

Scott and editor Dody Dorn keep the pacing brisk and elicit a certain level of tension even in the most relatively innocent schemes. When the big scam arrives, there's already a connection to each of these characters. Nicolas Cage has the physicality down, and he keeps the exaggerated elements of his character charming enough that they're never overbearing. It's a reminder of a Cage that wasn't afraid to take risks. Scott, Dorn, and cinematographer John Mathieson visually and rhythmically portray Roy's mental state in times of strain, further allowing us a window of sympathy for him. Alison Lohman is actually twenty-four but effortlessly passes for this character ten years her junior. Energetic and unrestricted, Lohman's portrayal captures the insecure confidence of youth along with its uncensored attitude. At the climax of a heartbreaking fight between Angela and Roy, she stingingly tells him, "You're not a bad guy. You're just not a very good one." In the role of the protégé, Sam Rockwell serves as a subtler antithesis to Cage's off-the-wall eccentricity. With slighter bits of odd behavior, Frank seems like the kind of man who needs guidance but one whose confidence guarantees success once he's had it.

The film moves along confidently, expertly, diving into the lives of these characters, showing their weaknesses, and fully involving us in their exploits. The central relationship between Roy and Angela is affecting, and Roy's slow transition to normalcy is believable and never condescending. The climactic heist sequence continuously raises the stakes in a brief space of time, and its ultimate outcome is unknown long enough to continue suspense after it has passed. The story seems to be heading in any number of directions, and it's this unpredictability that makes the finale pack an unexpected punch. For no reason, though, the film takes the time for an epilogue. It's a clearly tacked-on Hollywood ending that makes sure we know that, despite whatever may have happened, things turn out all right. The coda starts uncomfortably with one relationship being reevaluated and ends inexplicably with the creation of another. The sequence takes ten minutes to say something that a much briefer sequence could have said more convincingly and appropriately, but even still, leaving things as they are would have been much more powerful.

The ending is extremely problematic and difficult to overlook, and as much as I hate to say it, the film will probably play better on DVD when one has the ability to simply stop watching before the denouement (or perhaps with the release of a director's cut). Awkward as it may be, Matchstick Men's conclusion is a comparatively small sin attached to an otherwise superlative character study and comedy of deceit.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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