Matchstick Men is a slight but agreeable film by Ridley Scott that follows the misadventures of two con artists – Roy Waller, played by Cage, and Frank Mercer, played by Sam Rockwell. It is a slick diversion, in which everything functions at it should with grace and efficiency, like a classic crime caper from the 1950s cut to the smooth and pacey rhythms of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) or Catch Me If You Can (2002). There is a causal amorality to proceedings, redeemed by the relationship between Waller and his teenage daughter Angela (Alison Lohman), from whom he has been separated for many years. In fact, the film slyly wrong-foots the viewer with scenes that immediately seem sentimental, but appear less so in retrospect, with some very clever up-endings of audience assumptions. The film is spry, sure-footed and self-assured. There are cool wipe-cuts. Of course, such casual virtuosity, leads little to chance, so there are few, if any, moments of genuine serendipity, in which everything comes together just so to create an impression that stays for months, even years, after watching. Most of my favourite films have such scenes – the trip to the beach in A Room For Romeo Brass (1999); the scene with the night watchman in Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993); the ghastly but compelling music played by a pimp and madame in Herzog’s Fata Morgana (1971) – produced by improvisation or sheer happenstance, in which certain emanations seem to arise from the atmosphere and adhere to the characters, taking them out of time, as though only that strange, perfect moment in which they are enclosed exists.
It is a hard thing to put into words and probably a harder thing to pull off, but such moments are unforgettable. Generally, I like my films to be a little awkward and pigeon-toed, to consist of brilliant moments and be a little insecure, even ragged, in their plotting. For this reason, sometimes perfectly well put together and critically lauded films like American Beauty (1999) or The Lives of Others (2006) can leave me cold just because they seem a little too clean, tidy, well-ordered, safe. I don’t necessarily want the movies I watch to function like well-oiled machines. There is something alienating and even tedious about such formal perfection (especially when off-set against arguably vapid content, as in American Beauty). All this is to say, that Matchstick Men is not the kind of film I usually enjoy. Indeed, I was left uninspired by Ridley Scott’s colossal but wearying Gladiator (2000); so, while I am fond of both Ridley’s Thelma and Louise (1991) and Blade Runner (1982), I was not expecting much from Matchstick Men.
However, Cage provides. In fact, in a sense, Nic is best served by quite conventional, well-made films, because he’ll always add an element of chaos to proceedings. Matchstick Men wouldn’t be half as much fun without Cage and he provides an earnest, but nutty performance, that holds the whole enterprise together. I was particularly interested in Nic’s performance as Roy Waller since I had already heard prior to watching that the character has O.C.D. I have obsessive compulsive disorder myself! I too know the pain of having people tell me that they’re “a little O.C.D.” and have baroque, intricate showering rituals that only I can understand! As such, I was intrigued to see how Nic captured my very own moderately debilitating mental condition.
As might have been expected, he did so in a typically gestural way.
Nic’s portrayal of this hyper-powered schmuck with O.C.D. is a melange of bite-sized tics and twitchy freak-outs. He captures something of the mania of the condition… the irritating, ever-present obsessions and the repetitious cycles of behaviour they produce. Nic’s performance was probably a little too goofy to communicate the despair this can engender. I didn’t have the sense that his mind was constantly assailed by disturbing thoughts, but simply, that he was compelled to do the same actions over-and-over, to an irritating and crippling degree. In this way, Nic perhaps gets the cause-and-effect of O.C.D. back to front. Generally, a sufferer engages in the outward behaviours that characterise the condition (the hand-washing; touching things repeatedly; opening and closing doors; etc.) in a desperate bid to impose some semblance of order and control upon their environment, that is severely lacking in their turbulent inner-life. This is a form of magical thinking. If one’s environment is just so, then mentally, things will start falling into place… the universe will become more benevolent; the feeling of doom will – momentarily at least – dissipate. To be fair to Nic, O.C.D. is a very misunderstood condition. Understandably enough, non-sufferers only see the external stuff, which is really just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet Nic’s manic energy is undeniable. It is a somewhat cartoonish performance, but instead of the gangly youthfulness of Raising Arizona‘s H. I. McDunnough’s, there is the doughy fretfulness of Adaptation‘s Charlie Kaufman. Roy is a wired motor-mouth, always ‘umm hmming’, never making eye contact, locked in his cycles of erratic, yet predictable, repetitious routines. There is a sense that O.C.D. is being used as metonymy for arrested development. Roy is a habitual criminal, with no real achievements to speak off; a business partner instead of a friend; a daughter he hasn’t seen for the entirety of her fourteen years. He barely leaves the house and subsists on tins of tuna chunks. He is not waving, but drowning. He thinks he’s cool, but in reality he is a man who makes his living from scamming vulnerable old ladies who probably collect little china scottie dogs and watch The Antiques Roadshow. Instead of taking down big fish with a harpoon gun on the seas of corporate finance, he is shooting small fry in a barrel with a pea shooter made of telephone fraud. This is a man with a guilty conscience… to which his tics and anxiety are meant to testify. Indeed, these tics even reach as far as some desperate ‘Loony Tunes’ style comedy gulping at one point, as though the devil were breathing down Roy’s neck. Frankly, Roy had better enjoy the high-life while he still can, because as his partner Frank points out to him, “there’ll be no air conditioning for you in Hell”. In short, the conclusion I drew from the film is that if you’re suffering from O.C.D. then you’re probably a criminal.
Conveniently (maybe too conveniently) Roy’s daughter Angela arrives into Roy’s life like a breath of fresh air, winsome and pine-scented. Angela is the embodiment of the teenage child as authentic, freeing agent of chaos. She up-ends Roy’s life, but also allows him to experience joy and delight in a way that he clearly hasn’t felt for years. Roy is a bad father. He is not a bad father to the degree that Big Daddy in Cage’s later film Kick-Ass (2010) was a bad father, but he is similarly intent upon schooling his daughter in the lessons of criminality. Also like Big Daddy, Roy is kind of slick and kind of… frumpy. I should probably write a whole post at some point about Nic’s relationship to ‘cool’ and whether he is ever cool or not. I’m pretty sure that Roy isn’t cool. He’s too nervy and he accuses his daughter of being a “nosey parker”, which is definitely not a cool phrase to use.
Finally, for aficionados of so-called “Cage rage”, there is a particularly superlative example in which Roy does not have the time to spend waiting in a queue in a supermarket and screams “Hey, have you ever been dragged to the sidewalk and beaten until you pissed blood?” I am still undecided as to whether this was intended as a threat or as a painful reminiscence delivered with self-pitying righteousness. It is actually quite scary.
There is a quote in Matchstick Men, although I cannot remember who says it, that goes: “For some folks, money is a foreign film without subtitles.” The producers of Matchstick Men, underline those folks, understand money and know how to put it to good purpose. They have not produced a foreign film without subtitles, but a slick Hollywood product. Personally, I like foreign films without subtitles (although, then again, I don’t really understand money, so maybe that figures!) but I can also appreciate a well-budgeted American production, especially if a lot of the money is spent on securing a leading role for Mr. Cage. He is on fine form here and it is worth checking out.