For a deeply satisfying movie that hinges on a career-defining performance from one of modern cinema’s most fascinating stars, Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” has a strange way of falling through the cracks. Released to a tepid response in September 2003, this slippery tale of a con artist with a guilty conscience was too much of a tweener to find the audience it deserved, and — much like its twitchy protagonist — was also conflicted about swindling people out of their money. For a major Hollywood film that climaxes with a bare-assed Nicolas Cage running around an L.A. parking garage, its “B” Cinemascore is borderline miraculous.
Even now, 15 years to the month since its debut, “Matchstick Men” lurks in the dark recesses of basic cable. Surf a few channels up from the big game on a Sunday afternoon and you’ll often find it playing on a semi-automatic loop, as if baiting you to accept it as the the dad movie it’s been from the start. That might even be the cleanest way of classifying this eccentric genre hybrid, which is the kind of kooky mid-budget studio fare that only a titan like Scott can still push through the system. A bittersweet character drama that fools you into thinking it’s a low-stakes caper, the film is too sensitive to be lumped into the heist genre, and too twisty to be remembered as a long-con about a criminal’s moral redemption.
And then there’s Cage’s fidgety central turn as Roy Waller, which channels the most elegant of the actor’s natural talents — and the most egregious of his meme-ified tendencies — into a singularly humane portrayal that’s too holistic to be sliced into supercuts, but also too feral to have been performed by anyone else. “Matchstick Men” came out right in the sweet spot of Cage’s career, flitting into theaters through the open window between his last Oscar nomination and his first direct-to-VOD schlockfest. It was after he’d become a punchline, but before he’d become the joke.
He’s not as unhinged as he was in “Vampire’s Kiss,” or as cartoonish as he was in “Face/Off,” or as virtuosic as he was in “Adaptation.” His performance here isn’t subdued by the middle-class malaise of “It Could Happen to You,” or possessed by the white man’s kabuki of his police work in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” Roy calls to mind a little something from all of those roles, but he doesn’t belong to any one of them. And yet, if you took Cage’s entire filmography and crammed it into a blender, Roy Waller is the puree you’d be left with inside. “Matchstick Men” may not be the movie for which Cage is remembered, but nothing he’s ever done has better distilled what makes him so hard to forget.
“If you’re gonna get wet, you might as well go swimming.” Never, in any of the dozens (upon dozens) of movies he’s made since “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in 1982, has a single line of dialogue more perfectly summed up Nicolas Cage’s approach to acting than that bullseye from the first act of “Matchstick Men.” Cage doesn’t believe in half-measures the way that atheists don’t believe in God: For him, hedging simply isn’t an option, and anyone who puts their faith in it is only fooling themselves into not making choices. And when Roy’s estranged teenage daughter says those words to her dad, his face lights up like it’s the first time he’s ever seen himself reflected in another person. It’s like Angela (the amazing Alison Lohman) is looking right through Roy’s con artist bullshit and seeing the sincere man beneath — and maybe even catching a glimpse of the actor playing him, as well.
Roy, we’ve learned, isn’t much for human connection. In fact, he’s so haunted by the harm he’s inflicted on his marks that his guilt has manifest in a series of overlapping tics and psychoses so intense that he can barely function without the pills he gobbles like candy. Between the agoraphobia, the OCD, and the violent twitch in both of his eyes, it’s like Roy’s mind and body are revolting against his work. Cage makes the most of that pseudoscientific idea, even if the premise of depicting mental disorders as a dramatic expression of self-loathing is problematic to the extreme.
His tics belie a bottomless well of frustration: Each blink is a flinch of pain, and whenever his voice spikes and he starts yelling at random (“That’s no way for a young lady to behave! And… SHAME ON YOU!”) it’s like he’s trying to shout loud enough to feel the sound reverberate through his own body. Without verging on self-parody, Cage develops the performance as though building a character out of all the spare affectations he couldn’t fit into his earlier parts. Somehow, from all that random stuff, Cage is able to piece together a believable and powerfully sympathetic human being; it’s like watching live-action pointillism. The actor recently told IndieWire that his “Ghost Rider” performance was an imitation of Edvard Munch’s “The Shout,” by which logic his turn in “Matchstick Men” might as well be his version of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
“It’s no fun doing what I do,” Roy tells his wide-eyed daughter, whom he meets for the first time while in the planning stages of a major score. “A lot of times it’s stealing from people who don’t deserve it. Old people. Fat people. Lonely people.” He’s feeling that lack of fun in a big way when the movie begins; after the perversely sweet scene in which he teaches Angela how to grift a perfect stranger, Roy even forces her to return the stolen money. It’s no wonder that his business partner, Frank (Sam Rockwell), is starting to look at him like he’s a liability. At one point, Frank reminds him that “You always said guys like us can’t afford to have regrets about what we do,” and it’s safe to say that Roy should have listened to his own advice.
Whether he can afford to have them or not, it seems like regrets might be the only thing on which Roy has ever splurged. His home is an antiseptic chamber of loneliness — he’s only installed a few basic pieces of furniture, but each one of them somehow makes the place look emptier. The first time we see him, he’s standing behind the glass sliding door in his living room like he’s trapped in a cage of his own making. In the next shot, he’s walking around the house in his socks (no shoes on the carpet!), which is such a weird and affecting show of vulnerability; you never see irredeemable scumbags in their socks.
It’s the little things that endear us to Roy — and convince us to root for him, even after he cons a nice elderly couple out of their money before the movie is five minutes old. It’s the earnest way he corrects Frank after his partner refers to someone as “Hobo Ernie” (“‘Homeless Ernie,’” Roy insists), and the conflicted stare he shoots at his hand after Angela contaminates it by writing her phone number across his palm. “You’re not a bad guy,” she tells him. “You’re just not a very good one.” But Cage makes us believe that Roy wants to be better. He’s been stealing from people for so long that he’ll actually implode if he can’t find a way to give something back to the person he owes the most.
Want to see Cage at his absolute best? Watch the moment when Roy tells his therapist about teaching his daughter how to rob. He’s stuttering and staring at the floor as he recounts the story, and then — with a flash of recognition — the fog clears and the words flow out like clear river water: “I liked it. I really did.” Or check out the scene just a few minutes earlier, when Roy’s 14-year-old daughter strolls into his kitchen and cracks open a beer. Cut to: a close-up of Cage just moaning “uhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” for long enough that you can climb into his head and process his intensely conflicted emotions in real-time.
It’s not exactly subtle. And yet, there are an infinite number of gradients in Cage’s performance. He’s always acting with his whole face, but that face is an active battlefield between the man Roy is and the man he wants to be, and there’s always something new to see on it; the bigness of Cage’s acting never feels small or overcooked the way that hams tend to be on a movie screen.
Cage couldn’t have been happier when Ethan Hawke recently likened his style to that of the old troubadours. “I made a decision a long time ago that I wasn’t only going to explore naturalistic acting,” he told IndieWire. “[The troubadours] were exploring this kind of performance, and so were the classic film stars. Look at James Cagney in ‘White Heat,’ when he says ‘Top of the world, ma!’ Was that realistic? Hell no. Was it exciting and truthful? Hell yeah. Or Richard Burton in ‘Night of the Iguana,’ or Bruce Lee in ‘Enter the Dragon.’ They embraced a kind of charismatic and larger-than-life stylization. A grandeur, if you will.”
Grandeur — or scale, at the very least — has never been a challenge for Cage. We’re talking about a guy who turned the alphabet into an epic piece of spoken-word performance art, and a confrontation with a swarm of computer-generated bees into one of the most famous movie clips of the 21st century. By contrast, his turn as Roy Waller is practically Bressonian. His actual inspiration was the great French auteur Jacques Tati, whose Monsieur Hulot character wordlessly created an entire universe of expression. You can see it in the way that Roy moves, in his posture, in how he twitches away negative thoughts or opens a door only to slam it shut as part of a compulsive ritual.
But the thing about Cage is that he’s never larger than the emotions he’s trying to convey. In wackadoo failures like “The Wicker Man” or VOD nonsense like “211,” there’s nothing for him to work with, and so it always feels like he’s just kicking up dust — like he’s acting crazy for the sake of it. But in something like “Mandy,” where his character’s need to avenge his wife is practically burned into our brains, his ax-wielding rage cuts a portal into the heart of darkness, and opens it wide enough for us to appreciate every one of its bloody contours.
In “Matchstick Men,” Cage’s more expressive tendencies are literally rooted in his character’s head; they are motivated by nothing but his own corrosive internal chemistry. Even in the most unglued moments, it feels as though Cage is desperately trying to tell us something about Roy’s struggle. It’s as though the actor finds himself buried under all the tics that have come to define his craft, and spends the whole of the movie clawing his way back to the surface like someone who’s freeing themselves out of a sunken cave. The harder Roy forces him to resist his usual tendencies, the more we come to appreciate how well Cage has always used them.
His performance as Roy Waller isn’t his “best,” per se, but it perfectly captures the the actor’s unique ability to mine human emotion out of apparent madness. At certain points in his career, it has seemed like Cage has been the only one who’s not in on the joke, and in “Matchstick Men” — spoiler alert — that’s actually the case for Roy. But Cage doesn’t care if you’re laughing with him or at him; if he’s the punchline, the joke, or some combination of both. All that matters to him — and all that matters to Roy — is that we believe he’s trying his best. That he’s showing us something real. That no matter how loud or off the rails he gets, we know we’re not being conned.