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Matchstick Men - What we have here is a great three act play



Feature by: Jack Foley

CREATING the perfect con artist movie is almost as intricate as the art of the con itself, given that audiences need to feel delighted rather than cheated by being manipulated from start to finish.

Matchstick Men, a neat little crime thriller starring Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell, pulls off the trick with considerable aplomb, thanks to the talents of the team behind it.

The film follows Cage’s veteran con artist, Roy, who is also an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe, as he struggles to cope with organising a major scam, while coming to terms with his new-found status as a father to Alison Lohman’s aggrieved 14-year-old (the daughter he always suspected he had, but was afraid to ask).

And it expertly mixes aspects of touching family drama with the audiences’ fascination for con artists, while also throwing in plenty of twists and turns to keep the more discerning viewer on their toes.

While it may seem like a low-key choice for British director, Sir Ridley Scott, whose name is more synonymous with epics such as Gladiator, it is something that appealed to him from the moment he read it, not least because of the way it affords it characters the chance to take centre stage.

Speaking at a press conference to mark the launch of the movie at London’s Dorchester Hotel, Sir Ridley dismissed any notion that this was a ‘surprising’ choice for him, or easy in any way.

"Easy is not really the word, especially if you're invested in the material, which I always am before stepping across the sale counter," he explained.

"But it’s funny, someone said to me, 'it's interesting that you're doing such a small movie', and I replied, 'well, what's a small movie?' I've seen more movies this year, with budgets in excess of $160 million, which are rubbish!’

"When you've got masses of amounts of money being spent on special effects, sometimes the means become the end in itself, if you know what I mean.

"What we have here, however, is a great three-act play, which inevitably leads to some great characters, which, therefore, feels bigger than the larger movie."

And while the majority of the characters in question may ultimately be criminals, there is a coolness about them, and an accessibility, that makes them worth rooting for.

Cage, in particular, succeeds in presenting another memorable central performance, one which trades on the oddball quirkiness of earlier roles, while also remaining tremendously affecting thanks to the sensitive handling of his scenes with Lohman.

And while the tics and compulsive behaviour that accompany his character may have seemed daunting to work with, Sir Ridley admits that he was keen to let the actor experiment as much as possible, so that he had plenty to work with in the editing room, once shooting wrapped.

"Nic was saying just the other day, that, at the end of the film, you either have it, on rushes, or you don't… You always have to be locked and loaded by the time you say 'it's a wrap’ on a movie," he explained.

"You can always tone it down if it's too much, but you can't tone it if you haven't got it, so I let Nic run with it whenever I could."

Another factor in the film’s success is the performance of Alison Lohman, who pulls off her own con, of sorts, by convincing audiences that she is a 14-year-old teenager when, in reality, she is approaching her 24th birthday.

The talented actress is incredibly modest when asked to recall how she achieved this, stating: "There's definitely a look in the eye that a young person has, that we don't have anymore, so I definitely wanted to make sure we captured that in the movie.

"And I also hung out with my cousin for about a month, who is 14, and got to know her and what she'd talk about, what she'd do all day. She's nothing like my character, of course, so then I would have to try and use my imagination to create who I thought she was…"

Yet in spite of her humility, Sir Ridley is keen to play up the achievement even more.

"From a director's point of view, she is one of those rare occurrences where the intuition, which you can't really verbalise, is just really visceral. She can adjust to something during a take, and it'll nearly always work, and she has got extremely good taste, which is rare," he added.

With the essential components in place, the challenge then became about marketing the movie without giving too much away, as this is a plot which works best when audiences don’t know what’s coming.

With this in mind, does the director ever find that the publicity machine surrounding any major new release deprive the audience of a ‘pure’ viewing experience, by preparing them for what to expect in advance?

"Well, it's catch 22," he observes. "The problem, today, is that they're making 400 movies a year in Hollywood, which is staggering. And also it's a marketplace which is equally as valuable to the exhibitor, as it is to the theatre owners.

"So because they've got so much cannon fodder coming through, a lot of which is pulp, and you don't know whether it's going to work or not - because pulp can work big time, particularly in the foreign market - unless you have that big opening weekend, you can get yanked after two days.

"There's always something incoming that's going to just knock you off, which means that you've got to go into a highly competitive market place with everything you can. The key, therefore, is about clever advertising, making you interested without telling you everything.

"And I think the marketing campaign for this film has been very clever in what it has shown," he added.

Matchstick Men opens on September 19 and, given that we, as critics, have been urged not to reveal any key plot twists, we hope that you will do the same.

 

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