When we first meet Manglehorn (Al Pacino) he’s rescuing a baby from inside a locked car. The concerned mother waves her arms, pleading for her baby to be freed. Before doing so, he deems it necessary to criticize the cleanliness of the car as the mother stands by helplessly. This is a man whose life brings him no joy. No matter where he looks, he only sees problems.
Manglehorn, the newest from director David Gordon Green, is a character study of a miserable old man, who runs a locksmith shop in a seedy town. As played by Pacino in one of his most understated performances, he is a tough man to love. He’s grumpy and fast-tempered. As we follow his day, we begin to understand why.
He was once in love with a woman named Clara, whose photo he treats like a religious artifact. He writes her letter after letter, gushing praise and love from afar. We can tell by the fixed expression on his face, he isn’t receiving the reply for which he hopes.
Everything seems to be going wrong in Manglehorn’s life. Every action is a struggle, from frustrating light bulb replacements to his home mailbox, which has a buzzing wasp’s nest clinging to its underside. Even his cat Fannie has stopped eating, a bad sign for this lonely soul, whose only family relations have become cold and distant. He’s not some outwardly loveable and friendly soul. It makes sense that Manglehorn is cat person, as opposed to a dog person.
Those who knew Manglehorn speak highly of him, but only when he’s not around to hear it. They say he could make miracles come true. He could make the impossible possible with a simple touch of his hands. If anyone in this film is in need of a miracle, it’s Manglehorn and that’s the tragedy. He seems incapable of applying that power to his own life.
Friday trips to the bank are the one bright moment in Manglehorn’s week, as they include meeting with Dawn the bank teller (Holly Hunter) who shares and sympathizes with his cat problems. There is sweetness in this crusty old crank which only appears in Dawn’s presence, signs of a totally different person within. Similar scenes in which he simply interacts with his cat contain some of the film’s most heartfelt moments.
The screenplay, written by first-time scribe Paul Logan (who first worked with Gordon Green as a driver on Prince Avalanche) contains shades of Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. The two characters have a lot in common. They’re both angry, depressed men, trapped in vicious cycles. They yearn for salvation in the arms of an idealized woman, whom they can’t help but push away. The moments our hero should be enticing Dawn are the exact moments that end up repelling her. Oscar Issac’s near-homeless folk musician from Inside Llewyn Davis also jumps to mind.
Many years ago, this man was on a different path. He was a family man, who coached his son’s little league team. Manglehorn runs into Gary, one of his former players, in a sickeningly ingenious performance by Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine. Gary has grown into a fiendish hustler, who runs a massage parlor and tanning salon. He invites Manglehorn for a night on the town. Bad energy seems to follow Gary, much like the strippers who flank him everywhere he goes.
You wouldn’t expect to find a character like Gary in an otherwise quaint and grounded redemption story. Director David Gordon Green tends to alternate between the darkly surreal (Undertow, Snow Angels) and the absurdly comedic (Pineapple Express, HBO’s Eastbound and Down.) Manglehorn falls into former category, as this straight froward tale continually veers off into moments of cheerfully endearing strangeness. There is a constant feeling of dreaminess to the film.
Arresting images such as a break dance competition and a balloon-toting mime keep the film visually alive, even as poor Manglehorn seems nearly comatose on his feet. He’s not a man who welcomes warmth easily. Pacino is subtle and reserved in this role, uncharacteristic for a actor who has become notorious for his… let’s say, louder performances. Another striking reminder that Pacino is indeed one of our finest living actors.
The film doesn’t quite match the beauty and power of Snow Angels or Undertow, David Gordon Green’s most exuberantly tragic works. Instead, Manglehorn is a small story about a man who doesn’t care if you like him or not. Not unlike the man himself, some audiences may find the film tough to love.
by Tony Hinds @TheTonyHinds 3.5/5 stars