Ridley Scott is probably best known as a director who delivers big epic action movies, dipping into the sweeping vistas of outer space and history with stunning visuals and gritty excitement. But with Matchstick Men, he reminds everyone that he's just as good delivering something a little bit more low key.
Featuring Nicolas Cage as an obsessive compulsive, chain-smoking, germ a-phobic, agoraphobic con artist named Roy, Matchstick Men enters his life just when things are falling apart. His mental issues are getting worse, he's just found out he has a teenage daughter, and with his protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell), Roy is dead in the middle of planning the biggest, most important heist of his life.
Roy has never really been at peace with what he does for a living. He steals from the weak, the poor, the old, and the depressed. On a good day he only barely manages to avoid blowing his brains out because he's afraid of the kind of mess it would make on his carpet. But then he invites his newly discovered fourteen year old daughter into his life and things begin to change. At first he's afraid of corrupting her, but soon that's forgotten as he begins bringing her into his world of lies and cons. She's a natural and soon she's working beside him as a father daughter team.
Nic Cage is again playing a guy with a lot of weird quirks and ticks. If he keeps this up he's going to be typecast as a perennial Felix Unger. But beyond the oddities and obsessions, he does some heavy hitting in the realm of subtlety as he deftly brings out the desperate, emotional side of what could have been just another amusing caricature. Beside him, Sam Rockwell does what he does best... play a wildly charismatic supporting role. His character reminds me a lot of what he did with Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, only toned down and given a more genuine smile.
Using a pseudo-retro look, for no reason other than it gives the movie a striking style, Scott successfully makes heroes out of his two small time grifters. Jumping to and from various characters, the camera leaps in on the smallest of minutiae to highlight Cage's mental dementia. This adds a sort of charge to the personal dynamic between the movie's characters and affably approximates Roy's somewhat distorted world view.
But the beauty of Matchstick Men is that after awhile you forget it's a gimmicky of con movie and care only about the growing relationship between Roy and his daughter Angela, played by the extremely talented Alison Lohman. Sure, the crimes are cute and funny and maybe in their own way sad. They also serve as a catalyst for much of the tragedy and angst in Roy's life. Without a doubt though, Ridley's quirky drama is at its best as an engrossing character study in which we get to revel in a blossoming relationship between father and daughter.
As Ridley brings things to a head, personal involvement with his characters only grows more severe. You care about these people and all the time you have by then, invested in them. Sadly, that's when Matchstick Men kicks its audience in the face with an ill conceived plot twist. Trick endings can work, not just to shock the audience, but to propel both character and story further. But Matchstick so successfully engulfs viewers in the emotion and heart-wrenching consequences of its character's actions, that the kitschy con-man ending will undoubtedly leave audiences feeling cheated and abused.
Ridley tacks on a sort of follow-up, which struggles to convince us that kicking us and Roy in the face just when we might have cared most, was in the long run a good thing. Unfortunately, a halfhearted attempt at a happy ending just doesn't replace the good that could have been accomplished with a resolution more worthy of Matchstick's deserving characters.