It’s been 17 years since Matchstick Men played the big screen and though it has fallen somewhat into obscurity, I still return to it on occasion longing for the thrill of being tricked again.
What is it about a movie with a twist? In Matchstick Men, the good guys never saw it coming.
Do you have a list of movies in your memory where the story took you completely by surprise? So much so that you longed to be able to go back and be tricked again? Matchstick Men is one such movie for me. In taking another look at the movie today, I won’t be writing a review and I will be endeavoring not to give away the twist, but I also want to sing the praises of a movie that completely shocked me.
Made in 2003 and directed by Ridley Scott, Matchstick Men came and went at the cinema with hardly a notice. In a year when the Box Office was dominated by sequels from the Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix and Lord of the Rings franchises, Matchstick Men was barely a blip on the radar taking in just shy of 37 million in 79th place for the year. While films like Finding Nemo and Bruce Almighty were raking in audience, Matchstick Men was in theaters for just a few weeks and then went away.
Though that’s not to say that it wasn’t a moderate success with critics. Boasting an 82% fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes and a 61 Metacritic score, the film wasn’t entirely dismissed by reviewers. In fact, Derek Adams of Time Out wrote, “Ridley Scott lets us enjoy the satisfying clicks and whirs of the well-oiled celluloid con trick, while leaving plenty of head room for Cage to twitch and fret in.” So while nobody on Matchstick Men won Academy Awards, and while it wasn’t a massive Box Office champ, the film did have it’s list of supporters during it’s brief cinematic run.
All great con movies have one thing in common – in the end you love that they “got” you.
Hollywood has long loved telling stories about con men. A few of my favorites that come immediately to mind are The Sting, The Usual Suspects, Catch Me If You Can, The Game and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Certainly there are many more as the genre is a time honored one in cinema. And like all great stories about cons, the audience must never suspect that they are being taken for a ride. However, Matchstick Men also boasts several other facets that make it worthy of a reconsideration. So if I may, I offer you Five Reasons –
1. While it is a story about con men, it’s got a heart of gold
No film about con men can work without characters that resonate and draw you in. In Matchstick Men, Nicolas Cage plays Roy Waller to perfection. The man is a bundle of neuroses – he has OCD, is agoraphobic, probably has a touch of Tourettes and suffers constant and severe panic attacks. He deals with all of this while simultaneously working in partnership with a man named Frank Mercer (played perfectly, as always, by Sam Rockwell) as con men fleecing people out of their savings selling non-existent water purifiers. But the twist ending is earned by the fact that Cage’s Roy Waller has humanity. Though he does terrible things for a living, you still feel drawn to him and sympathize with him despite his profession. In short, this is a man that you pull for as crazy as that sounds.
While Matchstick Men was moderately appreciated by film critics, it was mediocre at the Box Office coming in 79th in 2003.
2. With solid performances from Sam Rockwell, Bruce Altman, and Bruce McGill, the supporting cast in Matchstick Men is superb
Each of these men has appeared in successful Hollywood films for decades. Sometimes in more leading roles and others in supporting or featured roles as in Matchstick Men. Obviously Rockwell won an Oscar for his performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2018 among many other notable performances, while both Altman and McGill show up on screen again and again in roles large and small. None of their performances in this film will appear on their “Best of” reel when each of them call it a career, but they certainly deliver here and contribute beautifully to the satisfying conclusion.
A lonely man who is unfulfilled by life discovers a relationship with a daughter he didn’t know was his. What could be more compelling than that?
3. Alison Lohman is a revelation
After seeing this film in 2003 I honestly believed I had just watched a star in the making with Alison Lohman. As Roy Waller’s estranged daughter Angela, Ms. Lohman presented a beautifully nuanced performance that was heartbreaking and genuine with just the right touch of sweetness. While the big names and performances belong to Cage and Rockwell, Lohman provides the emotional center of the movie and brings a reality to the proceedings that gives the ending something very refreshing. Surprisingly she hasn’t gone on to great success in the movies since that time only appearing in a handful of roles, but to me Matchstick Men will always owe a large part of it’s achievement to her performance.
How does a man afflicted with OCD, agoraphobia, Tourette’s syndrome and panic attacks survive? With the help of his friends of course.
4. To be clear, this movie doesn’t work without a great performance from the central character
Just like I wrote last week with Steve Martin and Mixed Nuts, I won’t say that I am the world’s biggest Nicolas Cage fan. But one has to respect the filmography that he has put together since bursting onto the scene in 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married. Since then he’s played in some great comedies (Raising Arizona and The Family Man), successful franchises (National Treasure) action films (Face/Off and The Rock), won an Oscar (Leaving Las Vegas) and had a pretty darn good career. His performance is what makes Matchstick Men stick and what keeps you guessing right up until the very last moment the movie leaves you completely stunned.
Nicolas Cage starred in Matchstick Men in 2003, the year before he launched the successful movie franchise National Treasure.
5. That twist!
I really, really don’t want to give away the twist to any who might want to experience Matchstick Men for the first time. So I am having to choose my words carefully when I tell you that this film succeeded beautifully in taking me for a ride. Now I know there will be some who say they saw it coming and others who say it wasn’t believable, but for me I was entirely blindsided. Like any great magic trick, the sleight of hand is what throws the viewer off balance and in Matchstick Men they definitely get you while you are looking the other way. In all honesty, this is one of the few films where I truly wish I could enjoy it again without knowing what is coming. So to those of you who haven’t watched it yet, I envy you.
Even if you see it coming, the twist in Matchstick Man makes the ride a whole lotta fun.
So that’s this week’s look at another film those of us at MTR believe is worthy of rediscovery with Matchstick Men. As with each of the previous films offered for your consideration, this film is also readily available for streaming. Watch closely and see if you catch them at their tricks before they turn you around. I promise you’ll have fun doing it.