The less you know about Matchstick Men, the better it is. In fact, it’s an almost impossible film to review without revealing spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, don’t read any further than this sentence: Matchstick Men is a quietly enjoyable, underappreciated, and thoroughly welcome knife into the back of your neck; go in with no knowledge, and leave with an emotional rarity: The supreme satisfaction of having been completely fucking duped by a movie.
“Make sure the person you’re conning isn’t conning you,” con man Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) tells his 14-year-old daughter, Angela, as he’s teaching her the tricks of the trade. It’s an appropriate sentiment for the movie as a whole: The audience doesn’t even realize until the one-hour-and-41-minute mark that Ridley Scott has been conning them all along. Matchstick Men is a movie about a con-man movie wrapped up so neatly inside a con-man film that the audience gets to experience the same thing that Roy Waller experiences: Confusion, recognition, loss and devastation, followed quickly by an almost joyous respect. Ridley Scott fucks you over, and all you can muster is a delighted, “Well played, sir.”
Ridley Scott hasn’t been the same since. And neither, for that matter, has Nicolas Cage, who for two hours reminded us of just what it was about him that we appreciated in Wild at Heart, Raising Arizona, Adaptation and Leaving Las Vegas. He’s perfectly cast in Matchstick Men as a agoraphobic con man with a germ aversion, asked to do what he’s best known for: Tics, stutters, and affectations. And that’s the brilliance of the casting decision: The audience just thinks it’s just another often irritating Nicolas Cage character, and it never occurs to us that the condition is a MacGuffin, an exceptional piece of misdirection developed not only over the course of the film, but over Cage’s career.
Roy is a lifelong con man who has been pulling off short cons long enough to amass a small fortune, which he’s sitting on in the hopes of retiring soon. His partner and protégé, Frank (Sam Rockwell), is more eager. He wants the rewards of a long con, but seems content to go along with Roy’s more modest schemes. Roy tricks people into giving him money, and justifies his criminal activity by suggesting that he never takes money from his victims; they hand it to him. But the guilt of a life’s worth of petty cons has piled up, which has led to his current psychological condition.
Enter Angela (Alison Lohman), Roy’s estranged 14-year-old daughter. Roy left his ex-wife while she was still pregnant with Angela, and after his shrink (Bruce Altman) sets it up, the two meet for the first time. They quickly bond, and Roy hastens the relationship by teaching her how to pull cons. It’s really very sweet — Roy’s condition improves significantly, and for the first time in his life, he finds something to live for. Things go awry, however, when his last con goes pear-shaped, and Angela gets involved before Roy can get out of the game.
If you hadn’t seen the movie, and could read between the lines of this review, it may seem fairly obvious where the narrative is heading. And you’d probably be right. And that’s why it’s best to go in with as little knowledge as possible. It helps, too, if you don’t know who Alison Lohman is. At the time of its release (2003), I only knew her from White Oleander, which actually plays perfectly into Ridley Scott’s hands; it’s almost as though he used Oleander to plant the seed for Lohman’s role in Men. But more than just that: For 95 percent of the film, Matchstick Men feels like a modest relationship drama about a mentally ill con man who finds salvation in a daughter he never knew. But as soon as Scott takes that narrative thread as far as it can go without ending up in the stuff that bad Nicolas Cage movies are made of, he drops the hammer, pulls off the blankets, and reveals Matchstick Men for what it really is: A cunning audience manipulation. As Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star review, Matchstick Men is “so absorbing that whenever it cuts away from the plot, there is another, better plot to cut to.” But what the audience doesn’t realize is that the better plot was simmering beneath the entire time.
Unlike another of the more mediocre offerings in the con man genre (a genre that is sadly underdeveloped, in my opinion), there’s no deux ex machine here. If you rewind the movie in your mind, it all starts to makes sense. There are no inconsistencies, or none that I can detect even in subsequent viewings. It’s the perfect hoodwink, and the only clue that it was coming is in Rockwell’s relatively unknown career up to that point: He has a tendency to play characters who are not what they appear to be. Except that in Matchstick Men he is exactly what he appears to be, but he deftly plays so underneath the radar (despite ample screen time) that we never see it coming.
Indeed, Matchstick Men is not only based on a brilliant screenplay (Nicholas Griffin and Ted Griffin) adapted from Eric Garcia’s novel, but it’s one of the better illustrations of excellent casting in recent memory, building on Cage’s reputation, on Lohman’s relatively unknown status at the time, and even on Bruce Altman’s history of authoritative supporting characters. Scott, in a way, used their typecasting to his advantage, all part of a long con that most audiences never even knew was taking place until he pulled it off.
I’ve often wondered, too, why Matchstick Men had only a modest box-office run (it tapped out at $36 million) despite mostly strong reviews. It would seem an ideal word-of-mouth hit. Maybe audiences didn’t want to admit to having been so completely deceived (I’m fairly convinced that, if you didn’t know who Alison Lohman was, there’s no way you could’ve seen it coming) or, perhaps, those who did see it were handcuffed by what they already knew. Revealing anything about Matchstick Men might have given it away, so audiences kept mum, and Matchstick Men sadly withered on the box-office vine