A new classic among criminal parables, “Matchstick Men” also allows director Ridley Scott to take us by surprise with a witty, absorbing and ac-
complished fake out, emerging from a location he had never gotten around to exploiting: contemporary suburban Los Angeles. In this case, it’s a camouflage backdrop for a protagonist cultivating an obsessive-compulsive vanishing act: Nicolas Cage as a self-described “con artist” named Roy, ridden with phobias that indicate a profound dissatisfaction with his successful but crooked profession.
Mr. Scott and his scenic collaborators, cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer Tom Foden, create a marvelous environment for an intimate character study of isolation and self-loathing that reach a breaking point. Ironically, the break is hastened by the fact that a man who has been profiting from the vulnerable and inattentive sides of people fails to anticipate or repair the cracks in his own armor.
The filmmakers establish the character’s hideaway residence at the outset, calling attention to the watery blue shimmer and serenity of an unused swimming pool before slipping indoors, where Roy is inclined to “enjoy” the pool by peeping at its reflective surface through blinds that protect an antiseptic, shuttered domestic solitude and fussiness. Roy obviously lives alone, because his tics and rituals would try the patience of a normal person.
Roy’s oddities, which provide Mr. Cage with an amusing new canvas for neurotic twitchiness, have begun to exhaust the patience of a young protege called Frank, the first major role that flatters the smarty-pants potential in Sam Rockwell. Frank apparently has been carrying the workload of their partnership, which involves a telemarketing swindle aimed at marks susceptible to the promise of bogus free gifts. As a token of their good faith, the victims agree to overpay upfront for a water filtration machine. Roy is the closer. If the men encounter extraordinary suckers, they follow up with a double-dip swindle, posing as sympathetic investigators from the Federal Trade Commission.
The material, cleverly adapted and expanded from a minor novel, has much in common with the recent cycle of suspense movies that have accentuated deception of both the audience and chosen characters. The success of “The Usual Suspects” and “The Sixth Sense” prompted this trend. “Matchstick Men” — a euphemism for con men cited by Roy himself — rivals “Suspects” for cunning transparency.
Mr. Scott, humorously invigorated by this small-scale holiday from movie spectacle and historical re-enactment, keeps the trick deck of cards supplied by screenwriters Nicholas and Ted Griffin pretty much face-up while distracting us from the implications and eventual payoffs that require concealment.
The best source of distraction is also admirably disarming: human interest. Roy’s behavior patterns are a formidable sideshow in their own right. There are also people he can’t avoid, a short list that begins with Frank, who rescues his mentor from a breakdown and urges professional care, embodied by Bruce Altman as a kindly shrink, Dr. Klein. This “Sopranos” touch leads to a decisive softening influence — the entrance of Alison Lohman, the impressive discovery of “White Oleander.” She plays a footloose child named Angela, who brings youthful vitality and piquancy into Roy’s secretive existence, along with a fresh set of anxieties stemming from paternal fondness and responsibility.
Unlike the films that now identify too readily with crooks, an inevitable affinity within the entertainment business, “Matchstick Men” embraces a perversely wholesome skepticism and generosity about the felonious.
Roy’s case demonstrates that crime can pay, but pitfalls remain; they can leave you a nervous wreck and cost you dearly.
TITLE: “Matchstick Men”
RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity; fleeting but gruesome graphic violence; occasional sexual allusions)
CREDITS: Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Nicholas and Ted Griffin, based on the novel by Eric Garcia. Cinematography by John Mathieson. Production design by Tom Foden. Costume design by Michael Kaplan. Editing by Dody Dorn. Music by Hans Zimmer
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: Four stars