influenced by dryer? Matchstick Men.

Matchstick Men has been universally received as Ridley Scott blowing off steam after a tiring run of blockbusters—a jazzy little doodle after the sumptuous canvases of Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Hannibal, with the daunting Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven looming ahead. But critics should remember that many of the novels Graham Greene initially labelled as ‘Entertainments’ are now regarded as least the equal of his more theoretically weighty efforts. It’s also not an invalid comparison to note that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love is still regarded by some as a minor effort after the sprawlingly ambitious Boogie Nights and Magnolia, though others share this reviewers opinion that PDL, while a miniature, represents a quantum leap forward.

Anderson is a visionary cinematic genius—Scott a talented but limited craftsman: an expert filmer of scripts, but very heavily dependent on the quality of his screenplays. And Matchstick Men, written by Nicholas and Ted Griffin, from the novel by Eric Garcia, is easily the best script he’s had through his hands since 1991s Thelma and Louise—which means the resulting film is easily his best since that Oscar-winner.

On reflection, however, Scott has developed considerably as a director over the past 12 years, and perhaps Matchstick Men is in fact his most satisfying work since Alien a quarter of a century ago. On further reflection—informed by a recent viewing of the Alien director’s cut—perhaps this is Scott’s best work, full stop: not quite in the league of Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson collaborator Melora Walters pops up uncredited in a tiny but pivotal role) or Point Blank (another outsider’s view of California from a British director), but much closer to the level of those masterpieces than anyone could feasibly have expected.

It’s certainly Scott’s best-looking film—which is saying something for a director noted for the visual stylishness of his work. If there was any justice, John Mathieson (also responsible for Hannibal and Gladiator, as well as K-PAX and Love is the Devil) would be going head to head with Dion Beebe (In the Cut) for 2003’s cinematography Oscar. Joining him at the Awards would be fellow nominees Scott, editor Dody Dorn and Hans Zimmer—whose score is very busy, but never quite overpoweringly so.

And they’d be accompanied by Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman and Sam Rockwell in the acting categories. Cage is at least as good here as he was last year in the nominated Adaptation double-performance. He plays Roy Waller, a self-styled “con artist” afflicted with what seems to be a very nasty case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s so dysfunctional at times as to appear bordlerline autistic, which causes no end of problems for his partner-in-crime (“my protegé…”), the much more laid-back Frank (Rockwell).

Further complications arrive in the petite shape of Angela (Lohman), Frank’s 14-year-old daughter from his long-dead marriage. The kid, however, turns out to have a remarkable aptitude for the family business, which proves useful in the ambitious sting Roy and Frank are planning against shady businessman Frechette (Bruce McGill)

To say any more would be grossly unfair; this is a con-thriller, and an uncommonly satisfying one, much closer in terms of ingenuity and style to, say, The Game or Cypher than the rickety likes of Confidence. There aren’t many good advertisements for the Hollywood way of movie-making these days, but Matchstick Men is one of them. “Safe, simple” is the conmen’s motto, and it certainly applies to the movie: a terrific script, brought to the screen by a skilled director in top form, with the perfect cast and excellent contributions from the behind-the-scenes talent. And who could dislike any film whose soundtrack goes from George Formby’s Leaning on a Lamp-post to Roxy Music’s More Than This (original version, not Bill Murray) without a ripple of effort?

Neil Young

24th October, 2003
(seen 23rd October : Empire Theatre, Consett, Co. Durham)



USA 2003 : Ridley Scott : 116 mins