Director : Ridley Scott
Screenplay : Nicholas Griffin & Ted Griffin (based on the novel by Eric Garcia)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Nicolas Cage (Roy Waller), Sam Rockwell (Frank Mercer), Alison Lohman (Angela), Bruce Altman (Dr. Klein), Bruce McGill (Chuck Frechette), Jenny O'Hara (Mrs. Schaffer), Steve Eastin (Mr. Schaffer), Beth Grant (Laundry Lady), Sheila Kelley (Kathy)
Nicholas Cage bought the rights to Eric Garcia’s novel Matchstick Men before it was even published, and it’s not hard to see why. The protagonist, a veteran con man with a laundry list of obsessive-compulsive psychological tics, is tailor-made for the quirky actor. Cage has always excelled at playing characters on the teetering edge of something, whether it be Raising Arizona’s stressed out criminal dad or Adaptation’s insecurity-ridden screenwriter. Cage is always at his best when his characters are at their most extreme because he has an uncanny way of investing what might be caricatures with genuine humanity, which is why he is without doubt one of the greatest actors of his generation.
In Matchstick Men, he plays Roy Waller, a longtime grifter who has been extremely successful in life by pulling off a lot of relatively low-risk cons with his partner/protégé, Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell). Frank, however, being young and brash, wants to pull off a big score, and he finally gets Roy to go after Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill), a conscienceless businessman who might be willing to go in on some money laundering. It’s a big risk, not only because the monetary stakes are so much higher, but because Chuck is well-connected and possibly dangerous.
The heart of the story, though, is not in the con, but in the relationship between Roy and the 14-year-old daughter he never knew he had. Born after the breakup of his marriage 15 years earlier, Angela (Alison Lohman) comes into Roy’s life after he begins seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), who encourages him to deal with his phobias and compulsions, rather than simply controlling them with medication. Roy is the unlikeliest of fathers—as he puts it, he has a hard time just being himself, much less being a father and dealing with a precocious teenage girl.
Yet, he sees something in Angela that he’s never seen before, namely a life outside of the grift, where emotions and feelings are real, rather than manufactured for the ruse. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that daddy and daughter have something in common—the gift of the grift—and some of the movie’s funniest and sweetest moments occur while Roy is teaching Angela the tricks of his trade. It’s an odd kind of paternal bonding, but it works because it feels so natural. We get the sense that Roy doesn’t love teaching Angela so much because he loves his trade, but because he loves the idea of passing something down to a daughter; it gives him a connection to life he’s never had before.
Matchstick Men was directed by Ridley Scott, who was looking for a change of pace after such big-spectacle movies as Gladiator (2000), Hannibal (2001), and Black Hawk Down (2001). Although he is far better known for the slickness of his imagery, Scott has a good handle on characters, particularly those inextricably caught up in each other (don’t forget that his directorial debut, 1977’s The Duellists, wasn’t a stand-out just for its look, but also for the intensity of its story about two men fighting through the decades). With Matchstick Men, he makes his directorial presence known with some arguably unnecessary visual flourishes that are meant to visually replicate Roy’s psychological issues, including jump cuts, sped-up motion, and blurred imagery. The film is at its best, though, when Scott stands back and lets the actors do the work.
That’s because the reason the film works so well is not in how it looks, but in how it feels. Matchstick Men is that rare crime story that uses its subject matter to get at deeper emotions. There is thrill in the con, sure, but there’s more pleasure in watching Roy and Angela develop a relationship and more tension when it threatens to all come crashing down. The grift is just a way to get us into the real story, which is how Roy comes to accept a different path in life, and the fact that the film ends on an image of sublime sentimentality and gets away with it scott free is enough to make it worth seeing twice, just to appreciate how it got there.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick