Matchstick Men (2003)

2010 #84
Ridley Scott | 111 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

Matchstick Men ends with a twist. One of those great big changes-everything-you’ve-just-seen numbers that have a habit of making a film notorious. Yet I’m almost loath to mention it, because I’ve never read a review, preview, summary or what-have-you of the film that mentions there’s a twist. Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong pieces; maybe no one cares; maybe they’re all just playing along trying to keep it secret. But not me, because I bloody hated it.

The twist, that is. The rest of the film is pretty good, but the twist undermines it — and not just because I knew it was coming. I don’t wish to sound boastful, but I knew it was coming before I even started watching, guessed from the little I did know about the film from one or two reviews and (sort-of-spoiler warning!) that they’d cast a 24-year-old as a 14-year-old. I spent the whole film hoping that my predicted twist wouldn’t come to pass, but, with crushing inevitability, it did. I didn’t guess every element of it before I began, though I picked up most as the film went along, and those that I didn’t get weren’t surprising either.

Is it easily guessable? I don’t know. It was to me. Perhaps I’ve seen too many heist-type movies or TV shows (watching several seasons of Hustle covers that one easily), or perhaps just too many films with twists, or perhaps it’s just my writer’s brain at work — the latter does have a tendency to make many films guessable. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because a guessable twist can still work. This one doesn’t.

Twists are fine. Twists can be great. As I said, you can guess a twist is coming and it can still work. A really good twist works even when you know for certain it’s coming; its existence raises what you’ve seen, makes it all work even on repeated viewings when the element of surprise is obviously gone. Matchstick Men doesn’t have that kind of twist. It has the kind of twist that undermines everything you’ve just seen. Not because it’s illogical — it isn’t in the slightest — but because it tramples over the film’s emotional resonance, in my opinion.

I don’t want to give away the twist here because, even if it’s a rubbish one, that’s a bit unfair on the film. I’d encourage you to watch it anyway and see what you think. And there are reasons to watch it anyway, even if some of the best ones are at least partially tossed away at the end.

Good things, then. The performances. Nic Cage can be awfully mannered and OTT quite often, but here it works. His character is inherently implausible — an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe who’s also a con artist — but he plays it well, replete with tics and habits. It could easily be a caricature or spoof of the afflictions, and at times it threatens to tip the balance — when we see him obsessively cleaning to a jaunty “isn’t this funny” score, for instance — but the line is successfully trod most of the time.

Alison Lohman is also exceptionally good as a 14-year-old girl. It took a scene or two to convince me, but after that I was plenty on board with it. It occasionally takes some effort to remind yourself she was 24. As the third lead, Sam Rockwell plays a typical Sam Rockwell part. He does it very well, naturally, and there’s nothing to fault him on, but he’s been better elsewhere. The rest of the cast are absolutely fine but not exactly called on much — this is Cage’s film, and to a lesser extent Lohman’s. They have the emotional journey, the film’s heart-and-soul around its long(-ish) con ‘plot’ (which could just be lifted from any episode of Hustle… except it’s not even that complex).

It’s also, as you may have noticed, A Ridley Scott Film. It doesn’t feel like one. It has a ’00s-US-indie aesthetic in every regard and consequently feels like the work of a first-or-second-time young-ish director. Perhaps this is to Scott’s credit, but on the downside it lacks any distinctive qualities. I suppose it’s not fully at odds with the rest of his career — even when you try to pick a genre Scott’s known for, you often find only two or three examples of it in his CV; and there are several genres you can do it with — but if you hadn’t told me it was a Ridley Scott film I’d never have guessed, and I’d wager no one else would either.

Matchstick Men was a lot better than I’d expected, because most of the coverage I remember shoved it aside as a middle-of-the-road side project for Scott. It’s definitely better than that, if still not the “sweep the Oscars” success Ebert seems to think. But I wish they’d stuck with the decision to cut out the twist, not because I object to how it leaves our hero (which was the reasoning, apparently), but because it undercuts an awful lot of what’s good in the film and consequently left a bad taste in my mouth, all for the sake of some aren’t-we-clever-ness.

Stop the film about when Roy wakes up in a hospital bed. Imagine they got away with it and he went to live happily with his daughter. It’s not just a nicer ending, it’s a more whole one too. And then imagine that film on my end-of-year Top 10, because this one won’t be.

4 out of 5

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