Matchstick Men - Ridley Scott - Nicolas Cage - Sam Rockwell - Roy Waller - Frank Mercer - escalator - airport

Matchstick Men
2003, directed by Ridley Scott

The opening credits of Matchstick Men give us a tour of Roy Waller’s luxurious home, set to Bobby Darin’s song “The Good Life”. Ridley Scott cut his professional teeth making television commercials, and the opening plays like an advertisement for the American Dream: a white modern house with a manicured lawn, attractive furnishings, and a picture-perfect swimming pool, juxtaposed with a view of the Los Angeles skyline. Everything is flawlessly arranged without a blemish in sight.

The movie ends in the same house a year later – still beautiful, still in great shape – but something has changed. Roy has gotten married, and the house has a warmth that was missing before. Measured by appearances alone, the change is slight. The lighting is different, and there’s a proper meal on the table instead of Roy’s customary can of tuna, but the visual evidence doesn’t sufficiently capture the difference. It’s more than a few ordinary improvements in the life of a bachelor con man. His marriage and reformation are signs of a more substantial inner change. The purpose of Matchstick Men is to define what a “good life” really means, in contrast to the competing version advertised in the opening.

Matchstick Men - Ridley Scott - Roy Waller's house - Roy Waller's home - white garage
Matchstick Men - Ridley Scott - Roy Waller's swimming pool - Los Angeles - opening

No sooner has the glossy prelude finished pitching the splendors of material success than cracks appear in Roy’s lifestyle. Going through his daily routine, Roy displays severe obsessive-compulsive behavior – but the movie will not approach his neurosis clinically. Each of his symptoms is geared to maintain or protect the “good life” he has chosen. His obsessive cleanliness keeps his possessions pristine. His checking compulsion assures their security behind locked doors. His fear of the outdoors reflects his lifestyle’s hold on him as he withdraws into the comfort of familiar settings. His facial and vocal tics keep potential relationships at bay so no one can betray his trust the way he so often betrays his victims’ trust.

The opening sequence represents the American Dream, but it’s also tinged with the glamor promoted by Hollywood’s “dream factory”. The stylish architecture, elegant landscaping, and swimming pool elevate the house above ordinary American life, and the Los Angeles setting ties it implicitly to Hollywood, which has always seduced people with visions of a lifestyle that many will believe is beyond their reach… unless they turn to crime. Roy Waller is torn between the anxiety of protecting his existing wealth and the thrill of pulling a con job. Ironically he is more relaxed in his shady “work” than in his normal life, but he’s afraid to take on a big con until Angela comes along. Both of these poles in his life, the posh lifestyle and the excitement of crime, belong to Hollywood’s catalogue of temptations.

Matchstick Men - Ridley Scott - Nicolas Cage - Alison Lohman - Roy Waller - Angela - park

Matchstick Men is the story of Roy Waller’s redemption and the path to his marriage. It might not seem extraordinary that these two threads also form the plot of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, but the parallels between the two movies run deep, and whether they are intended or not, we can appreciate Matchstick Men better if we regard it as a reworking of Bresson’s film. Both are studies of a lonely man who turns to crime. Pickpocket‘s protagonist Michel is punished with time in prison, whereas Roy is punished by losing the fruits of his crimes. Each film features a brief and elaborate demonstration of the criminal’s craft – a montage of sleight of hand techniques in Pickpocket, and the laundromat scam with the lottery ticket in Matchstick Men.

One of the keys to Pickpocket is the characters’ names. Jeanne and Jacques point to the social philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which pulls Michel out of his social isolation. In Matchstick Men the names are not quite as direct of a clue, but they are chosen carefully. All three main characters have ironic names: Angela is no angel, “Frank” is a synonym for “honest”, and “Roy” means “king” though he is far from being master of his situation.

Matchstick Men - Ridley Scott - Alison Lohman - Nicolas Cage - Angela - Roy Waller - Mexican restaurant - margarita

The other key to Pickpocket is its metaphoric use of doors to portray Michel’s private mental prison. In Matchstick Men, Roy’s wish to remain indoors limits him to a stale and hermetic life, and his compulsion to open and shut doors reveals an ambivalence toward his self-imposed barriers, just as Michel was compelled to leave doors ajar. Roy is an extroverted and somewhat charming man who nevertheless has no friends and has not enjoyed a close relationship in over a decade. His hunger for intimate contact is plain every time he gets in line at the supermarket, but his chosen lifestyle prevents him from reaching out. His last name, Waller, describes his relationship to the rest of the world – he has walled it off. Dr. Klein tells him that after a life of closing doors he needs to start opening them, echoing Jeanne’s first words to Michel in Pickpocket: “I have the key. I’ll open it for you.” The doctor turns out to be a quack, but in this at least he is right.

In Pickpocket, Michel is brought back to humanity through the faith and efforts of a close male friend and a woman who loves him. In Matchstick Men, although Angela and Frank do not have the good intentions of Jeanne and Jacques, they achieve the same results in Roy’s life. With Angela, Roy finds the intimacy and camaraderie he has long deprived himself of. The enjoyable moments he shares with her begin to describe the version of a “good life” that the movie prescribes in opposition to the material success advertised in the opening credits. Although Roy is momentarily crushed when he loses his nest egg and discovers that his daughter never existed, these misfortunes set him on the right path, freeing him to get an honest job, marry Kathy the supermarket cashier, and find peace of conscience.

Matchstick Men - Ridley Scott - Nicolas Cage - Sheila Kelley - Roy Waller - Kathy - ending - pregnant - salad - table

By the end of Matchstick Men the irony of the characters’ names has reversed itself, or rather has resolved into a double irony. Frank isn’t an honest character, but his dirty trick and his handwritten letter open Roy’s eyes to the truth. Angela may not be angelic, but her duplicitous example reveals to Roy what he actually wants, i.e. a real son or daughter (at the end Kathy is pregnant, so it seems his wish will come true). Moreover, in the final scene Roy has finally achieved the “life of a king” in a modest sense, although his eyelid twitches as he presses his head to Kathy’s belly. It’s a vestige of his symptoms, but also a wink at the audience, admitting (unlike the opening scene) that nothing in life is perfect.

The movie’s title is a slang phrase for a con man. The words “matchstick man” are spoken only once, when Angela inquires about Roy’s profession. Everyone understands that the title refers to con artists Frank and Roy – and, as it turns out, every major character except Kathy – but the opening montage suggests a second meaning. Frank and Roy are only small-time crooks… the real matchstick men are the people at every level of society who sell us an anti-social ideal of “the good life”, distracting us from the ordinary happiness we get from personal connections.

Matchstick Men - Ridley Scott - Alison Lohman - Nicolas Cage - Angela - Roy Waller - carpet store - reunion

The penultimate scene finds Roy managing a carpet store, a fitting joke for a man once so obsessed with clean carpets. By chance Angela walks in with her new boyfriend, and Roy treats her more charitably than she has any reason to expect after cheating him so grievously. He tells her she didn’t steal from him, rather he gave her the money – which makes sense, because she unwittingly gave him more than she took. The beauty of the scene is that it does for the two characters exactly what the ending of Casablanca does for Rick and Ilsa. In each movie the pair had enjoyed a blissful relationship until it was shattered by a perceived betrayal. In both Casablanca and Matchstick Men, the man and woman reunite unexpectedly and recapture their lost past. In neither case will they live together like before, but now with the bitterness gone they are free to savor their shared memories. When Angela says to Roy, “We had a good time, didn’t we?” it’s equivalent to “We’ll always have Paris.” This – and not the luxuries of a Hollywood lifestyle – is the real substance of life.

CONNECTIONS:

The Wizard of Oz – Ordinary life preferable to excitement and success; “There’s no place like home.”

Casablanca – A man able to savor his memories again after a woman comes back from the past

Mildred Pierce – Set in Los Angeles with an implicit allusion to Hollywood’s social influence

Pickpocket – Thief who finds love and redemption at end; demonstration of technique; police in restaurant; metaphorical use of doors; male and female friends who steer the man back to a good life

Zabriskie Point – Set in Los Angeles with an implicit allusion to Hollywood’s social influence

Blade Runner – Set in Los Angeles with an implicit allusion to Hollywood’s social influence

The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover – Character named “Roy” who alludes to royalty

LIST OF DOUBLINGS:

  • Two dogs at sliding doors (Otis at the first victim’s house, and Roy’s porcelain dog)
  • Dr. Klein and Roy use a sore back as an excuse (the footrest, asking Chuck to switch seats)
  • Twice Chuck fails to leave a tip
  • Frank and Angela both give people the finger
  • Roy and Angela both talk about vomiting
  • Chewing gum is paired twice with bras: Roy and Chuck discuss training bras and the smell of gum as signs of teenagers; Angela admits hiding gum in her bra while shoplifting
  • Repeated dialogue between Roy and Angela: inheriting Roy’s elbows, glasses making Roy look old, suggestion to return money to the victim, one calling the other “Dad” incorrectly
  • Twice Roy and Angela meet in the park while an old man practices tennis in the background
  • Twice Angela won’t eat the food Roy offers
  • Twice Angela follows when Roy tells her to stay behind
  • Two big arguments between Roy and Angela
  • Two restaurant scenes with Roy and Angela