Matchstick Men proves that when focused, Scott’s particular eye for visual flair is well suited to any genre and tone.
Ridley Scott has always been an inconsistent director, with his best work leaning towards the larger scale epics he’s so adept at creating. But 2003’s Matchstick Men is a curious anomaly in his filmography. A smallish con man dramedy that flew under the radar while also disappointing at the box office, Matchstick Men proves that when focused, Scott’s particular eye for visual flair is well suited to any genre and tone.
The film stars Nicolas Cage as Roy Waller, an agoraphobic, OCD riddled con man who gets by on small time fraud, refusing to commit to anything long term or complex. His life requires routine and simplicity, so his crimes must follow the same suit. His partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) has been trying to rope him into a bigger game for a long time, but Roy won’t budge, so the two stick to scamming housewives with water filtration sales and bank forgery. That is until Roy runs out the prescription pills he’d be illegally acquiring to help keep his condition under control.
Frank sends Roy to a therapist named Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman) who provides Roy with a temporary medicinal solution, but only if he’s willing to actually attend sessions and work through his issues. It’s in these sessions that Roy reveals he has a child he’s never met, because his ex-wife was pregnant when he ran her off. Dr. Klein reaches out and finds her, at Roy’s behest, so Angela (Alison Lohman) enters Roy’s life. Her presence changes things, leading him to take the long con job Frank has been poking him about, which, this being a movie, doesn’t go as planned.
Now, this being a con man movie, you know there’s gotta be a twist, and we’re not going to spoil it here. The film’s third act hinges on a paradigm shifting plot reversal that calls into question everything you’ve seen preceding it. But this isn’t like a Mamet film where there’s a cold calculation to the construction of the narrative. It’s airtight screenwriting, but it’s all tethered to the genuine emotional beats Roy encounters throughout the film.
Roy’s OCD initially seems like a crutch to give the film some color but also an excuse for Cage to act like the madman he’s so singularly gifted at portraying. But as the film progresses, it’s clear this isn’t a gimmick. Roy doesn’t suffer from these conditions because it makes the film quirkier, rather they’re a psychological manifestation of the guilt being a career criminal wreaks on his conscience. When Roy finally lets Angela in on what he does for a living, she says he doesn’t look like a bad guy. Roy tells her that’s what makes him so good at it. It’s not just a line, though. He’s a fundamentally decent person who’s been stuck in a career that has only ravaged his mental wellness. The narrative of the film is one big con, as is customary with the grifter genre, but the result is ultimately therapeutic for Roy, an end result that’s rare for films like this.
So much of why this works can be attributed to Cage’s stellar, unsung performance here. Roy is a great conduit for Cage’s recognizable tics and oddball charm, but it’s all in service of something real. He isn’t just hamming it up for the fun of it. He creates a real portrait that’s as touching as it is hilarious. He and Lohman have really great chemistry as a father and daughter finding solace in one another. The centerpiece is essentially a love story between parent and child and this missing puzzle piece for Roy is so believable because of how nourishing it appears on screen.
The performances should come as no surprise with a cast this strong, but it’s Scott’s assured direction that makes this train run so smooth. While the story is small potatoes in terms of potential for visual experimentation, Scott has an absolute field day dramatizing Roy’s world and how insurmountable his tics and obsessions can feel in tense moments. Memento editor Dody Dorn utilizes the serrated quick cutting she honed so well on that amnesiac thriller to give a jagged rhythm to these scenes, putting the viewer in Roy’s shoes without disorienting them from following along.
Matchstick Men, above all else, holds up on repeat viewings. It’s an engrossing little picture that offers laughs and real pathos, but the big twist waiting at the end of the second act is so well done that you can watch the film again and again without finding any real leaps of logic. Credulity is never strained because the focus is kept on the characters and their motivations. It’s great that Ridley Scott seems so enamored with his return to the Alien franchise, but more minor one-offs like this would be a nice change of pace from any more ambitious, high budgeted misses.