In Matchstick Men, the Con Man is a loveable sort of crook

the nice guy that will smile as he takes
your life savings is the Matchstick Men

Hollywood usually depicts the Con Man as a loveable sort of crook, the nice guy that will smile as he takes your life savings. This Film is no different in this presentation of a career criminal. Roy (Nicholas Cage) is a con man, excuse men, con artist. With his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) the Matchstick Men rip off elderly people selling them $50 water filters for hundreds of dollars. As with most such criminals, they are always looking for that one big score, the one that will set them up for life. Now Frank is not only a crook, he is a man with serve obsessive compulsion disorder, he has to open and close a door three times, panics if a shoe should happen to touch his carpet and has ticks and whoops when his disorder overwhelms him. When his illegally obtained medication is accidentally split down the drain Frank seeks out the help of a shrink. The shrink, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman) wants to actually threat Frank rather than just prescribe the pills so Frank winds up trying to get in touch with his 14 year daughter, one that he never knew existed. Angela (Alison Lohman) comes into Frank’s life like a hurricane. His orderly life is turned upside down as she moves in with him. Angela discovers what Frank does for a living and talks him into teaching her a simple con, she takes to it immediately.

There is a third main story line here in the Matchstick Men, the set up for the fabled big score. Using foreign currency they plan to take a rich investor Chuck (Bruce McGill). What works here is the way the three stories intertwine, how they form a synergy, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Frank takes to his new role as a father, albeit in an unorthodox manner, parental control here is making Angela return money she just conned. Angela opens up Frank’s life. Where he used to live on a diet of canned tuna and cigarettes, now he buys pizza, ice cream and sets down at the table with his daughter. He genuinely cares for this 14 year old girl even though she completely disrupted is life. Angela brings life to Frank, a youthful enthusiasm that was lost long ago. Rather than having his vision of the world collapsed to searching for lint on his carpet this young girl broadens his view of the world. After leaving her alone for awhile he returns to her sleeping on the sofa amidst a room torn apart. Instead of being concerned with the mess and bowing to his compulsions he smiles and pulls a cover over Angela.

The Matchstick Men provided a perfect vehicle for Cage. He is one of the best actors around today that can take a quirky character and present him in such a human fashion that the audience immediately identifies with Frank. This ability to humanize the most incredible odd characters is what Cage does best and here he tops most of his previous roles. Instead of being distracted by the physical quirks the audience is able to accept them as normal for this man. Lohman is actually ten years older than the 14 years she plays here. She roles into her character with an unbelievable ease. She plays Angela as a young girl on the verge of maturity, one that instinctively knows out to push the right buttons with her father to get her way. There is a natural chemistry between Lohman and Cage, one that helps the audience understand Frank even more. McGill is a largely underappreciated character actor. He has made a nice career in films and television and here he brings his talent to bear on what amounts to a small but pivotal role. Matchstick Men is also an important little role for actress Shelia Kelly as a checkout person in Frank’s local market. In the brief scenes with Kelly just a look conveys a lot that adds to the story.

Director Riddley Scott has never been confined to a single genre. He is able to handle extreme action, fantasy, science fiction and drama with equal ease. Here he weaves the elements of the three main plot lines together in a seamless quilt that surrounds the audience. More than great pacing there is a rhythm to this production. While the third act is somewhat rushed he manages to give a twist at the end that I personally found entertaining. He realized that he had talented actors here and he gave them the freedom to express those abilities. His use of close-ups to feature the facial expressions that conveyed so much more than words alone ever could. The framing of the scenes is near perfection, the lighting far above what many films settle for. Scott is willing to take risks and in films like Matchstick Men they pay off. He can handle a man exposing a young girl to a life of crime in a completely inoffensive fashion. The scene where Frank is teaching Angela to run a con reminded me of the film Leon only with a non-violent crime being the syllabus. Scott uses a retro soundtrack that absolutely fit in with the character of Frank, a man such in life. Matchstick Men works so well because Scott paid attention to the smallest detail and it shows.

The production of the Matchstick Men DVD is far above many I have recently reviewed. The audio was rich and full although the rear channels and sub woofer were not given a lot to do. The anamorphic video had a true color balance with no edge effects or defects visible. The commentary track was always interesting and helped the viewer understand a bit more of the back story of the characters. One warning, do not listen to the commentary until you have seen the whole film. Early on a causal comment provides a clue to the twist at the end that can ruin it for you, when you re-watch Matchstick Men that little statement will pop out at you. There is a three part featurette also provided. It breaks down the making of the Matchstick Men into pre-production, production and post-production. Each segment details every aspect of making this movie. It is almost a mini course in cinema. Over all this is a keeper. Even after you know the end you can return to Matchstick Men for the performances.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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