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Matchstick Men

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // October 13, 2015
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 22, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

The high concepts and elaborate production values found in Ridley Scott's work often, understandably, distract from the bundle of smaller films found in his oeuvre, either going overlooked or unassociated with the prolific director. From a meditation on obsession and honor focused on Napoleonic swordsman to an empowering renegade road trip for two different kinds of suppressed women, he has a knack for lending emotional and suspenseful magnitude to smaller, purposeful narratives that might not enjoy them otherwise. Matchstick Men marks another of Scott's under-the-radar departures from the complex demands of his more epic-scaled productions, deliberately orchestrated as something to occupy the director's downtime following a pair of heavy-hitters and leading into another. Snappy, thrilling, and confidently tangled up in character-oriented dishonesty, Scott's flawed but involving take on an obsessive-compulsive con-artist almost makes one wish he'd dedicate more of his energy to such minor endeavors.

Adapted from Eric Garcia's novel of the same name, Matchstick Men revolves around the twitchy personality of Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage), a professional grifter whose primary operation -- backed by his slick protege, Frank (Sam Rockwell) -- revolves around fake sweepstakes and government investigations into the matters. Thing is, Roy's OCD and pseudo-agoraphobia give him ticks so frequent and debilitating that he requires certain medication to maintain his poker face, forcing him to visit a doctor whenever he runs out. In the midst of conversation over one of such appointments, the idea emerges that Roy might want to call his ex-wife as a measure to alleviate some guilt, potentially the source of his ticks. The suggestion, instead, presents a new complication for Roy: the knowledge that he also has a fourteen-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman). Roy decides that he wants to at least meet her, but discovers that he's bitten off more than he can chew when Angela wants to become a more permanent fixture in his clandestine life.

With an effervescent, retro-inspired score from Hans Zimmer and fidgety, vivid camerawork and editing, it's obvious that Ridley Scott strives to have fun with the deviations in style afforded to him by Roy's condition, accentuating the conman's sensory perception whenever he flies off the handle. His ticks are used more for levity than blatant humor, a difficult line to walk that Nicolas Cage engages like a pro, mixing some of the social discomfort from his persona in Adaptation with a version of himself whose grunts and flinches look like he's bottling up the craziness from his previous roles. The fusion works well enough that the line between comedy and drama fades within his mannerisms, as does the perception of Roy Waller as a criminal worth scorning, almost earning pity for the hell he deals with while snaking honest people out of their hard-earned cash. Sam Rockwell clocks in as a predictably sarcastic foil to his phobia-addled partner: with his inherent charisma filtered through Frank's sneakiness, a tricky rapport emerges between this pair of likable criminals that swindles those watching into sympathizing with them.

This is all just setting the stage for the heart and soul of Matchstick Men to enter the equation, though, rolling in on a sunny afternoon while riding along on a skateboard. Angela's arrival quickly alters what the film's truly about, at first driven by Roy's compulsive guilt and later evolving into the two bonding over the unique, albeit limited, skills he can teach her. Elevated by Alison Lohman's gracefully cheery and open-minded presence during their casual adventures through the world of conning, an endearing father-daughter relationship forms amid their activities both inside and out of the grift, complicating further once she's roped into Roy's business when things don't go according to schedule. Gradually, the film's harmless, upbeat tone over impromptu junk-food binges following their "lessons" -- and during Roy's clumsy efforts at being an actual dad, which are used for blatant humor -- begins a cleverly-written spiral downward into suspense and endearment, driven by Roy's newly-discovered protectiveness towards the daughter he never knew he had and grudgingly incorporating her into his illegal affairs. It's unsurprising that the multifaceted nature of this role, coupled with her turn in Big Fish, rapidly launched Lohman's notoriety.

There's no shortage of twists and turns beyond that point in Matchstick Men, perhaps a few too many, but Ridley Scott telegraphs them all with a firm grip on what really matters: how the characters respond to the persistent shifting of circumstances. Some of these are earth-shattering reveals that completely reshuffle perceptions of what's going on in Roy's life, layered into a rousing and elaborate house of cards that'd come toppling down with a little real-world scrutiny toward what someone would and wouldn't do. Others are slight and justifiable, more about the cathartic drama afforded to them instead of shock value, though that doesn't stop director Scott from coaxing a larger-than-life presence out of them to compliment the rest of the goings-on. No matter the scale, Roy's progression against the obstacles of his guilt-driven psychosis, both physical and mental, amounts to a cunningly bittersweet and tightly-paced atmosphere of dishonesty, one whose modest stylish pursuits and affable intents never lose touch of why they're playing the audience.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Matchstick Men sneaks onto Blu-ray in close proximity to the theatrical unveiling of Ridley Scott's latest sci-fi epic, The Martian, likely the capitalize on its projected popularity or, at the very least, the added attention on Scott's previous work. The opportune nature of the release can't be seen in the quality of the 2.39:1-framed, 1080p AVC encode, however, furthering WB's reputation with recent catalogue offerings of fringe under-the-radar films. Under a veil of organic film grain and a frequently teal-leaning palette, fine detail comes out on top as the clear winner here: it's incredibly noticeable in Roy's sterilized yet stylish house filled with burlap, stone, and wood textures, as well as whenever the cinematography zeroes in on little things like flecks of dust, sprinkler water drops, and the holes in a screen door. The contrast balance renders immaculate, rich black levels and a delightful grasp on dimensionality, complimented by faultless skin tones and a diligent eye for the consistent use of hazy, diffused lighting. Back by a superb bitrate and elegant fluidity of 24p motion, fans of the film should be delighted.

The audio also hits the mark with a sublime 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Matchstick Men revolves a great deal around the verbal wheeling and dealing of the con artists and the clumsy but endearing conversations between Roy and Angela, so it's a pleasure to hear the track's razor-sharp, depth-aware preservation of Cage's clenched disgruntlement and Alison Lohman's liveliness, succeeding at being so stable that the viewer's able to effortlessly process it and relish their body language instead. Hans Zimmer's vibrant, retro score draws out delightful mid-range notes through wood instruments and the rasp and thump of percussion instruments, to which the track's clarity makes getting swept up in that desired tone nothing but a delight. The rear channels aren't terribly consequential here, responsible for marginally sustaining the music's immersion and for restrained ambience while driving and experience the distorted reality of Roy's ticks, but the content sticking around back there stays extremely natural and free of distortion. It's a tremendous track and, dare I say, a novel way of flexing one's sound setup with the immaculate soundtrack. Ten other audio tracks and twenty (!) subtitle options are available.

Special Features:

The extras are limited to the content produced for WB's Matchstick Men DVD over a decade ago, but they still get the job done with aplomb. A composite Audio Commentary with Director Ridley Scott and Writers Nicholas and Ted Griffin finds the storied director filling a familiar role, providing sober and insightful dialogue about his motivations, techniques and casting choices, while the screenwriting duo adds a dose of levity and down-to-earth perspective on Scott's adaptation that's a nice contrast. WB have also included the three-part production diary, Tricks of the Trade (1:11:46, 16x9), a pretty terrific featurette that holds up to this day. Incorporating now-commonplace, press-kit style interviews with an intimate and engaged perspective on the actual decision-making and construction process, the piece follows Scott and his cast/crew as the film's production takes place in real-time. This is a deliberate and entirely unpretentious conglomeration of behind-the-scenes footage, evenly separated into three self-descriptive chapters: Pre-Production (24:55); Production (27:57); and Post-Production (18:53).

Rounding the extras out is a Theatrical Trailer (2:35, 4x3 Letterbox).

Final Thoughts:

Attitude, cleverness, and general likability trump strained common sense in Matchstick Men, Ridley Scott's take on a phobic con-artist whose life gets upended by his dwindling medication and the discovery that he has a daughter. Everything has a place and a purpose, as well as a trick up its sleeve to keep the audience guessing. The reason the twists work, however, is because of the well-fleshed, persuasive characters and how they adapt to the scale of what's happening around Roy Waller, a unique twist in itself through a crackerjack animated performance from Nicolas Cage. Warner Bros. aren't conning anyone with this timely Blu-ray release, sporting wonderful audiovisual merits and carrying over the properly substantive extras from the DVD. Strongly Recommended, especially at that price.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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