Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” (2003)

Notable Festivals: Venice

Shortly after the conclusion of his ambitious anti-war/pro-military action drama, BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), director Sir Ridley Scott began development on another ambitious effort titled TRIPOLI.  Written by William Monaghan of THE DEPARTED (2006) fame, TRIPOLI was to be a sweeping period epic in the vein of GLADIATOR (2000), whereby Russell Crowe and Ben Kingsley would play US diplomats who took up arms with Christian and Muslim soldiers against the leader of Tripoli at the turn of the nineteenth century.  Naturally, the project would take quite some time to develop before it could go before cameras, so Scott — ever the unflagging workhorse — immediately began looking for a film he could quickly shoot while waiting on TRIPOLI’s green light.  He would find it in MATCHSTICK MEN (2003), a contemporary caper penned by brothers Nicholas and Ted Griffin and based off Eric Garcia’s book of the same name.  Representing Scott’s return to the Warner Brothers fold for the first time since 1982’s BLADE RUNNER, MATCHSTICK MEN would ultimately prove a minor effort amidst the director’s intimidating filmography — despite being a fleet-footed, highly enjoyable picture on its own merits.  

Its setting within modern-day Los Angeles already positions MATCHSTICK MEN as a curio within Scott’s work, finding Nicolas Cage as a small-time conman named Roy Waller, emphasis on “small”.  For all his supposed skill, all the middle-aged grifter has to show for it is a small house in the Valley and a rundown office he shares with his business “partner”, Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell).  An actor not exactly known for his subtlety, Cage finds a prime vehicle for his eccentric energy in the character of Roy, whose chronic anxiety and crippling agoraphobia constantly threaten to undermine the collected cool that his profession requires of him.  Rockwell revels in Frank’s oily swagger, strutting around like a capitalist cowboy who sees the entire San Fernando Valley as his for the taking; its denizens, a bottomless pool of unwitting marks, the latest being Bruce McGill’s Chuck Frechette, a small-potatoes businessman and country-club gangster who nevertheless represents the opportunity for a huge payday.  Roy and Frank have honed their con skills to an exact science, easily separating fools from their money with a superhuman tactical dexterity. The equation is suddenly thrown off balance by the unexpected appearance of a daughter Roy never knew he had, coming to him in the form of a spunky teenager named Angela. A product of a semi-serious relationship long since consigned to ancient history, Angela’s endearing unpredictability and infectious energy (courtesy of actress Alison Lohman in her breakout role) prove to be just the thing Roy needs to free his mental health from its long, slow decline.  Once Angela discovers the true nature of Roy’s profession, it isn’t long before she talks her way into the action herself. The ensuing heist is as heartwarming as it is idiosyncratic; a “Take Your Daughter To Work Day” for career criminals. Of course, there is no honor among thieves, and the bright glow of Roy’s newfound fatherhood might just be blinding him to a reckoning that he should’ve seen coming.

MATCHSTICK MEN’s narrative certainly marks a major departure from Scott’s usual oeuvre, but the punchy aesthetic on display here continually assures us we are in familiar hands.  After sitting out BLACK HAWK DOWN, cinematographer John Mathieson returns for his third collaboration with Scott, tasked with avoid the bright and colorful conventions of the studio comedy genre.  Shot with anamorphic lenses on beautiful 35mm celluloid, MATCHSTICK MEN opts for a moody, restrained color palette that punctuates heavy cobalt hues with pops of pink. Be it from Roy’s prescription pills or Frank’s convenience-store wraparounds, pink proves itself to be a very important color throughout, screaming out to clue the audience in whenever an element of the plot against Frank is present within the frame.  Scott’s artistic preference for silhouettes and low-key lighting earns a narrative justification here, helping to distinguish the debilitating difference Roy encounters between interior and exterior settings. Interiors are a dark, comforting cocoon of carpet and slat blinds, while exteriors might as well be the surface of the sun. A frequent image finds Roy standing at his window and looking out at his glistening backyard pool, but its framing suggests something more akin to an astronaut warily surveying a hostile environment that may vaporize him the moment he leaves the spaceship.  In addition to clever framing, Scott and Mathieson utilize a variety of in-camera techniques like ramping shutter speeds or low frame rates to convey Roy’s agoraphobia as the very-real, debilitating experience that it is for him. Cheeky transitions and freeze-frames lean into MATCHSTICK MEN’s postmodern comedic sensibilities, as do the contributions of production designer Tom Foden and returning composer Hans Zimmer.  Foden and Zimmer both work to create a distinct mid-century flavor, as if MATCHSTICK MEN was simply OCEAN’S ELEVEN with middle-aged Valley burnouts instead of suave, Rat Pack con-men.  Foden achieves this vibe through carefully chosen locations and inspired set dressing, while Zimmer draws inspiration from the aforementioned Rat Pack’s sonic palette.  Better regarded for his bombastically avant-garde scores for superhero movies and historical epics, Zimmer finds in MATCHSTICK MEN the rare opportunity to be playful and light-hearted.  An accordion features prominently throughout Zimmer’s jazzy, jaunty orchestral score, prompting nostalgic visions of bowling alleys and wet bars.  The ever-present croon of Frank Sinatra dominates an eclectic suite of vintage big-band needledrops, as if Scott had simply swiped The Grove’s playlist for his own use.  That said, the film also deploys a variety of tunes from other, more-recent decades as ambient background music for specific locations, alluding to the incongruous, yet strangely harmonious, diversity of LA’s musical landscape.

After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, MATCHSTICK MEN was released to mostly-positive reviews that stood in stark contrast to a lackluster box office take.  Intended as a minor comedic diversion in the vein of THELMA & LOUISE (1991), MATCHSTICK MEN was never destined to stand shoulder to shoulder with that prior classic— or any other classics in Scott’s canon, for that matter.  While the film further builds on his talent for strongly-realized female characters and intensively immersive environments, Scott doesn’t betray any sort of overt aspiration towards the gravitas his name usually bestows on a project— and that’s kind of what’s great about it.  MATCHSTICK MEN’s ever-growing appeal lies in its low-key, yet unflappable, confidence, as well as its heartwarming twist on the conventional father/daughter relationship.  This is the work of a seasoned artist who knows he has nothing to prove, exhibiting only the personal joy he derives from the filmmaking process. If MATCHSTICK MEN comes to be remembered as an artistic success for Scott, then it will be because he didn’t need to resort to cheap tricks in order to share that joy with his audience.   

MATCHSTICK MEN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers


Written by: Nicholas & Ted Griffin

Produced by: Jack Rapke, Ridley Scott, Steve Starkey, Sean Bailey, Ted Griffin

Director of Photography: John Mathieson

Production Designer: Tom Foden

Edited by: Dody Dorn

Music by: Hans Zimmer