Matchstick Men (2003)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Although he’s probably best known for rather big, epic-like productions, at this point I sort of prefer Ridley Scott’s smaller movies, such as the recent Matchstick Men.

Apparently intended as a smaller film made while waiting to begin work on a much larger production, this movie seems to have really captured Scott’s imagination. For me, it’s one of the best movies he’s made.

It may be due to the fact that, in terms of production, it is smaller. There are no huge battle scenes and so on. It’s all about the story. And what a great script they have to work from.

It’s about a couple of con men, Roy and Frank, and a big, final con they try to run.

Roy and Frank (Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell), a couple of con men.

But it’s also about one of the con artists in particular, Roy (Nicolas Cage). He’s brilliant at his craft but a total human wreck in his personal life – he has more phobias and “issues” than year’s worth of Doctor Phil shows.

Finally, it’s about Roy and his 14-year old daughter (Alison Lohman), whom he is meeting for the first time. (Despite the fact Lohman is 21- 22 years old you would never know it without being told.)

In a nutshell, basket case Roy and Frank are running cons.

Frank wants Roy to join him in a larger one for a big score – basically a con on another con. Roy’s daughter enters his life at this point and he begins to discover fatherhood. He agrees to help Frank on the large con and … well, it gets complicated after that.

The script has several threads running through it and they weave in and out of one another, informing one another, flawlessly. In the end, of course, they intersect and is brilliantly done with a surprising end that does not come across as gimmicky but rather with a sense of inevitability and credibility.

Roy and Angela (Alison Lohman).

While a comedy, there is a serious note to the movie though never so serious as to become oppressive. Scott manages to maintain the film’s charm throughout while also maintaining a kind of non-sentimental edge as well.

There are so many elements going for the movie it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. Cage is perfect as the phobia-riddled Roy; Sam Rockwell is perfect as the weasely, fast-talking Frank, and Lohman is delightfully perfect as Roy’s teenage daughter.

One of the other elements of the movie that really struck me was the use of light. Scott uses it almost as if he is making a black and white film. I don’t recall many colour movies that use light in quite this way.

The way it enters widows, shades scenes, falls against walls and furniture, creates shadows … it’s very reminiscent of old black and white films. In one of the key sets, Roy’s home, he also uses the light from the swimming pool outdoors as a key element in the scenes.

Nicolas Cage as Roy in Matchstick Men.

He also uses editing and distorted camera shots when communicating Roy’s disorientation in a few key scenes.

While generally I dislike this kind of manipulation, somehow it works perfectly here.

Though a “smaller” film than Scott normally makes, it strikes me the lessened scope has help to focus his skills in such a way as to heighten them, producing one of the best films he has made.

On almost every level, Matchstick Men is brilliant. It’s a wonderful, ingenious script accompanied by cast and crew performances of the highest level. The end result is an almost perfect movie.

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