“Con men are more appealing than run-of-the-mill villains, who want to take your money because they are stronger or more dangerous than you are. Con men want to take it because they're smarter than you are.” – Roger Ebert
Who doesn’t love a good con movie? Intricate films headlined by characters who are equal parts smooth and shady intent on outwitting their marks, as well as the audience members. For my money the holy trinity of con movies are The Sting, House of Games, and The Grifters. These films, as well other good con movies, are studies in psychology and focus. How much would you trust a total stranger in a given situation? How truly observant are you? How far would you go, both criminally and morally, if you knew you could get away with it?
2003’s Matchstick Men definitely deserves discussion among not only unjustly overlooked movies but among the first-rate con movies, like the ones I previously mentioned. From director Ridley Scott comes a film that is less Alien and Blade Runner fare and more in line with his work like Thelma and Louise and A Good Year. The film also features one of Nicolas Cage’s best performances. I know that in recent years Cage has been something of a punchline for his non-stop parade of B-films as well as a career full of over the top, manic work. But Matchstick Men is the perfect showcase for his complete range of frenzied energy balanced by some poignant, quiet moments as lifelong smalltime con man, Roy Waller.
As the film begins, we see Roy pulling another standard con along with his current partner, Frank (an excellently sleazy Sam Rockwell). Roy is barely able to execute their play and suffers a panic attack in the midst of stealing an old couple’s life savings. Roy has extreme OCD and for the most part is only able to function while pulling cons. But this time, Roy has hit a mental and emotional wall. Spurred on by Frank, Roy seeks professional help from a psychiatrist (Bruce Altman) who is able to size him up, in more ways than one. Roy opens up and is encouraged to reach out to the teenage daughter that he thinks about but has never met. Roy is so petrified he has his shrink make contact.
Enter Angela (played by Alison Lohman), who has heard nothing good from her mother since Roy abandoned her while pregnant. But Angela is willing to give Roy a second chance and is endlessly curious. Soon, he has come clean about his “Matchstick Man” (nickname for con man) existence. There’s a very charming sequence where he schools her about a classic con involving a lottery ticket with the previous day’s numbers. The newly rejuvenated Roy decides to join Frank in a bigtime con targeting a business man named Frechette, played by legendary character actor Bruce McGill. Roy feels justified in scamming Frechette when he notices that he doesn’t like to tip.
The final third of the movie is full of twists and turns that I would rather not spoil as Roy and Frank hit a few complications and Angela gets a little too eager in her confidence game education. Perhaps, I am too easy to please with movies like this. You might be able to see what will happen a few miles out but I would hope you are still entertained since all the performances make it worth the while.
Then there’s the final scene, which takes place a year later. This is the first film I can remember in a long time where such an epilogue-type scene works. What started as a sleek con movie, coupled with an awkward father/daughter reunion, becomes so much more. The final minutes of Matchstick Men is where the film shows its heart and is surprisingly touching. Maybe that’s the biggest con of all, not that I minded.