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The Tao of Nicolas Cage: 1-2-3-‘Matchstick Men’

In 2003, Nicolas Cage made a movie with Ridley Scott. That movie is called Matchstick Men, and it co-stars Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman. It’s very, very good.
Matchstick Men
By  · Published on November 27th, 2017

In 2003, Nicolas Cage made a movie with Ridley Scott. That movie is called Matchstick Men, and it co-stars Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman. It’s very, very good.

“Hey have you ever been dragged to the sidewalk and beaten till you pissed…blood?!”

Trying to describe to someone just what it is that makes the career of Nicolas Cage so special is a difficult thing. I attempt to do it with this column and I like to think I’m having a small impact in that department, but whether or not I am, I have no clue. If I had to pick one movie that best represents the career of Cage all in one package — and it’s very possible I’ve said this about another movie in the past, but I reserve the right to say this about multiple films — I would go with Matchstick Men.

There are a couple reasons as to why Matchstick Men would be my pick in this scenario. The main reason is that when I think about Cage, this isn’t one of the first movies that comes to mind. If I were to take on the impossible task of ranking his work, this wouldn’t make my top five, and might not even make my top ten. The notion that one actor could have ten movies in their resume better than Matchstick Men is borderline absurd, because Matchstick Men is a nearly flawless film.

Imagine for a moment that you live in a sad, depressing world and you are completely unaware of the existence of Nicolas Cage. Hey now, put the gun down, this is just an imaginary scenario. We’re all very familiar with Cage here, but let’s pretend that the concept of this man is foreign to us. Picture yourself as an alien visiting Earth for the first time, if that makes things easier. You sit down to watch Matchstick Men and naturally you’re blown away, because it’s fantastic. After the credits roll, someone walks up to you and says, “Hey, Cage has even better movies that this!” Your head then proceeds to explode.

Now that pretend time is over, we can focus on exactly what it is that makes Matchstick Men so special and such a great summation of what kind of an actor Cage truly is. In this film, Cage does things with great success that few (if any) other actors could pull off. I speak with hyperbole a lot when it comes to Cage — I understand that — but I am being very sincere right now. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, “He has a kind of raging zeal that possesses his characters; what in another actor would be overacting is, with Cage, a kind of fearsome intensity.”

Thank you, Roger! That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say this whole time!

In Matchstick Men, Cage plays Roy Waller, a man with a few issues, to say the least. He has a number of phobias and he may have Tourette’s, but Roy’s biggest issue is that he’s severely OCD. He can’t go in or out of anywhere without opening and closing the door three times, and he’s obsessed with cleaning, constantly scrubbing down his entire house at the first sign of dirt. Don’t even think about wearing shoes on his carpet.

That alone is enough for a movie, but we also find out that Roy is a con artist, and that he works with his partner Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell) to scam poor, unsuspecting folks in the Los Angeles area out of their hard-earned money. Roy and Frank have mostly been working small jobs, but have recently come across the change to pull off something big.

Matchstick Men isn’t satisfied with all that, however, and decides to throw in Angela (Alison Lohman), the 14-year-old daughter that Roy never knew he had, too. Now Roy is forced to deal with his mental issues while trying to plan the perfect con and learning how to be a father. Woah, that’s a lot — and yet somehow, it all works in perfect harmony.

Director Ridley Scott — that’s right, this is also a Ridley Scott movie — and writers Ted and Nicholas Griffin deserve a ton of credit for taking all of these big ideas and fitting them into one cohesive film that flows effortlessly. Not only does this film have enough elements for three separate films (something that Ebert also pointed to in his review), but it takes twists and turns in an effort to con the audience. With so much going on, Matchstick Men has endless opportunities to stumble and fall, but somehow, it manages to keep it together and stay upright. At the center of it all, you have Cage carrying it from start to finish.

As a result of his many ailments, Roy has some interesting quirks and mannerisms. He has these little tics, and he reacts to certain situations in an awkward fashion. Roy does the type of things that Cage likes to incorporate into any character he plays, and in this film, those things actually work really well, because they represent the character and what he’s all about.

Cage also has the range to bring out the many different sides of Roy; sides that should contradict each other, but that somehow don’t. Roy is sort of an awful person: he steals from helpless people, and he tries to justify it by saying he only takes what they offer him. In some instances, he’s stealing from other bad people, so I guess it evens out, but that’s not always the case.

Roy is also a very sad character. He’s a lonely man, and you can tell that that eats away at him. Unless he’s on a job, he can’t really interact socially. This sadness makes him sympathetic and opens up his trusting side. Roy wants to be better, which is why when Angela shows up in his life, he is eager to be a good father. It’s quite the dynamic, and something that Cage is able to pull off with relative ease.

The cast around Cage helps the film as well, as they bounce off him perfectly. Rockwell and Cage should be partnered up all the time; the fact that the two of them have only played in two films together is a travesty. It’s no wonder the world is falling apart. I propose that if we get a string of Cage/Rockwell movies, everything that is wrong with society will begin to take an upswing the likes of which we haven’t seen before. Producers of Hollywood, fix this problem!

How in the world Lohman convincingly played a 14-year-old at the age of 24, I’ll never fully grasp. The relationship between her and Cage is so sweet and adorable. Here you have two lost individuals who couldn’t have less in common (at least on the surface), but who have found one another thanks to a random twist of fate and, despite the issues they face, are in many ways saving one another. It’s beautiful in every sense of the word.

Matchstick Men was a bit of a box office bomb, which would be disappointing, except that what does and doesn’t do well at the box office rarely ever makes sense, so there isn’t much you can do about that. What I do find to be a troublesome issue, however, is the fact that somehow, Matchstick Men received zero Oscar nominations. In the Academy’s long history of oversight, this one is towards the top. The Best Picture nominations that year were The Return of the King, Master and Commander, Lost in Translation, Mystic River and Seabiscuit, and while I’m not saying that Matchstick Men would have won, it is better than at least three of those, so it deserved a nomination.

I don’t like it, but I’ll give a pass on the film not getting nominated for Best Picture. What I will not stand for, however, is Cage not earning a Best Actor nod. Sean Penn won that year for Mystic River. I love Sean Penn, and he’s fine in Mystic River, but Mystic River is not a particularly good movie, and his performance is not in the same realm as Cage’s. Looking back now, it’s clear that not only should have Cage been nominated, but he probably should have won. You could make an argument for Bill Murray winning, but outside of that, I don’t think any actor gave a better lead performance than Cage did in 2003.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the power to go back and give Cage the Oscar (…yet), but maybe I have the power to convince others to go back and appreciate this masterpiece. I’ve written nearly 1,500 words on Matchstick Men in an attempt to prove how great it is, but if that’s not enough to win you over, I’ll leave you with this clip that is sure to do the trick.

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Chris Coffel is a contributor at Film School Rejects. He’s a connoisseur of Christmas horror, a Nic Cage fanatic, and bad at Rocket League. He can be found on Twitter here: @Chris_Coffel. (He/Him)