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Matchstick Men (2003)

lie cheat steal rinse repeat

Directed by:

Ridley ScottRidley Scott

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 116 minutes

UK Certificate: 12A

Country: United States

If there is a sucker born every minute, then the same can also be said of films about confidence tricksters. In the last year we have already seen 'Nine Queens' and 'Confidence' – but what makes 'Matchstick Men' stand out from the crowd is that it is in fact three films morphed seamlessly into one. Figuring that by now viewers have become jaded with the predictable, cross double-cross triple-cross trajectory of your average con film, 'Matchstick Men' also offers a psychological profile of a conflicted, conscience-plagued career criminal, and throws a credible family drama into the mix for good measure – all of which makes for a surprisingly substantial film whose many facets leave you with plenty more to digest after the final credits have rolled than just who did what to whom and how (although it certainly has that too).

Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) is an obsessive-compulsive – uncomfortable outdoors, crippled by the sight of dirt ('especially around mouldings', as he tells his psychiatrist, played by Bruce Altman), and heavily medicated – but he also just happens to be a smooth-talking con artist, running smalltime scams with his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell). When Angela (Alison Lohman), the 14 year old daughter that he never knew he had, re-enters his life, Roy starts for the first time to enjoy something like normal domesticity, and decides to go straight, in his daughter's, and his own, interests – but not before he can pull off one last big job, which naturally does not quite go according to plan.

For a while Nicolas Cage was playing action heroes in films like 'The Rock', 'Con Air' and 'Face/Off', but in this film and the recent 'Adaptation' he establishes himself as the actor to call on when a film needs an anal retentive neurotic – and just as in 'Adapation' he played identical twins, here he plays a man split between dual rôles of glib, self-justifying criminal and tormented, moralistic father. Despite all the twitches and tics, Cage makes Roy a highly sympathetic figure – a confidence trickster with no confidence whose best deception is the one he reserves for himself.

Director Ridley Scott is best known for large scale alien encounters and gladiatorial conflicts, but here he proves just as adept at handling the subtle characterisation involved in an awkward (but loving) father-daughter relationship – as well as pulling off a complicated scam. 'Matchstick Men' includes, like all confidence trick films, a mindbending twist, but it does not end with the twist itself, but with its aftermath a year later. In this way the film is also a neatly symmetrical morality drama about crime, punishment and redemption, where it is left ultimately to the viewer to decide whether Roy has turned out the winner or the loser.

A well directed, tightly scripted film where every detail plays a part in the whole, with a solution that is as satisfying emotionally as it is intellectually.

It's Got: Individually vacuum-packed tuna tins and very clean carpets.

It Needs: At first it seemed to need to decide whether it wanted to be a confidence trick flick, a psychological profile or a family reunion film - but in the end all these strands proved to be inextricably, and satisfyingly, linked.

Alternatives:

Paper Moon, The Grifters, The Zero Effect

Summary

Just when the confidence trick film seemed to have breathed its last, Ridley Scott has come along and given it new life by expanding its horizons. Not just a pretty scam (although it certainly is that), but also a redemptive drama whose deeply flawed central character is allowed to develop and change. Not a world changer, but far more intelligent and moving than 'Gladiator'.

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