Scott’s ‘Matchstick’ lights up screen

Ted Pigeon

Movies about con men or criminals pulling off the ultimate score are becoming increasingly tiresome. Many of the movies I speak of that are made today are one dimensional, employing every convention imaginable, which seem to exist solely to dupe the audience and not to tell a good story. Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” is one of the few films of its kind to get it right. It exists for its characters and tells several stories so successfully because we care about the people who inhabit them. The stories don’t feel fake or tacked-on; instead, we are a part of them, because we are a part of the characters.

The film opens in the home if its central character, an obsessive compulsive man named Roy, played by Nicolas Cage. The pool is crystal clear, as are the glass doors and windows, the rugs are spotless, and the counters are bacteria free. He rigorously cleans everything in his ordinary house every day in a particular pattern and with a specific rhythm. Outside his home, Roy makes a living by conning people with his younger partner, Frank, played by Sam Rockwell. Frank and Roy are impeccable at what they do, as they effortlessly scam people day in and day out.

As a result of several sessions with a psychiatrist, Roy discovers that he has a 14-year-old daughter from a long ago relationship. He finally meets his daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), one day with the cautious intention of getting to know her. His awkwardness is interpreted by Angela in a good way, as she sees a sensitive and caring man for a father. And while their relationship is being formed, Roy and Frank plot one of the biggest cons they’ve ever attempted.

In terms of balancing the various elements of the story, Ridley Scott does a phenomenal job and never misses a beat. The screenplay is intelligently written and expertly paced, with humor and intelligence present in every scene of dialogue between Roy and his partner Frank. Many of the scenes involving Roy and Angela are particularly notable, due to the outstanding performances by both Cage and Lohman. Their scenes seem to take on a life of their own as the they both create a sense of discovery within themselves and each other, resulting in several poignant moments. The movie ranges in mood and atmosphere. At times it is very light and humorous, aided by the addition of several Sinatra songs. But the film takes an inevitable turn in a different direction. And when it does, it feels real. John Mathieson’s cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s music score greatly excel during these scenes, as Scott effortlessly maintains control of the story without ever going over the top as the film nears its end.

Despite the changes in mood and atmosphere, the film is a balanced effort from stylistic standpoint regarding quality and avoids being jerky, and more importantly, manipulative.

Ridley Scott has told many different kinds of stories, whether it’s sci-fi (“Alien,” “Blade Runner”) buddy movies (“Thelma and Louise”) war epics (“Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down”) or character based stories like “Matchstick Men.”

He is usually known for his innovative visual style, but the director constantly emphasizes the importance of character and story above all other things. Sure, the film boasts so many other great qualities, but it’s the commitment to the characters that is the source of the genuine emotional satisfaction that the film provides.