This review was originally published during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
A.J. Manglehorn is a man of minor miracles. A locksmith by trade, the old man has a magnetism that causes broken or unhappy people to become close with him. Perhaps that’s because of the charm that radiates off the performance from living film legend Al Pacino. Or perhaps it’s what to be expected in another Texas-set tale full of eccentric personalities from the prolific director David Gordon Green.
Manglehorn had its world premiere last month at the Venice Film Festival, but made its North American debut at TIFF 2014. Starring Pacino as the titular character, Manglehorn is a man without much in his life: an old shop he must upkeep by himself, a sick cat that refuses to eat its food, a casual flirtation with the bank teller (Holly Hunter) he sees every Friday, a bitter son (Chris Messina) that wants as little to do with him as possible, and his granddaughter whom he only sees occasionally.
All the while, he writes love letters (dictated via lethargic voiceovers) to a long lost love named Clara, whom he met before marrying (and divorcing) a wife he, “never loved.” As Manglehorn drifts from work to home and the bars, he feels detached from the world around him, only half-listening when characters like Gary “Tan Man” (Harmony Korine) approach him eagerly, hoping to grab a glimpse of the magic he had. Manglehorn indulges these deadbeats because as he says, “I like hanging with folks worse off than me.”
The legend of Manglehorn is difficult to grasp, but repeated in each of the few scenes not involving Pacino. This legend is not a particular act, but several small otherworldly moments, like gathering a ball of flaming fur in his hand off a dog that had been struck by lightning. These tales can seem like a contrast to the otherwise realistic and fairly grounded story; however, Gordon Green implements various techniques that give Manglehorn an overarching dream-like quality. One such example of this is when Pacino, with his cat held tightly in his arms, happens upon a 7-car wreck with chunks of red watermelon strewn about and walks by it in an unsettling slow-motion sequence.
The methods David Gordon Green utilizes to give Manglehorn its hazy mood work to varying degrees. The cinematography by Tim Orr contains splashes of colored lights and a few wonky shots through glass during some of the movie’s more meditative moments. The film’s electric score from David Wingo and the band Explosions in the Sky creates a contemplative mood, but one that often seems grandiose when compared with the movie’ subjects.
Most notable are the editing techniques used by Colin Patton: long dissolves that either drift back-and-forth between one set of characters and Manglehorn, or dissolves that overlay two, sometimes three scenes on one another by making some of the visuals transparent. This is combined with several scenes in which Al Pacino’s voiceover is heard simultaneously with dialog from within another scene, which makes both scenes hard to hear and occasionally incomprehensible. The ways Gordon Green tries to apply these ideas are compelling in spots, but do become tiresome.
Manglehorn’s strongest feature is the restrained, commanding performance from Al Pacino in the lead role. As an actor often mocked for his more dynamic qualities, Pacino seems consciously cast against type here. With the actor’s gray stubble, deeper wrinkles and tired expression, the 74 year old shows his age more so than in any of his other recent roles. It’s exciting to see the Pacino embrace subtleties in acting out Manglehorn, and it’s easily among the actor’s best work of this century (it might be his best if you discount the HBO films he did as Phil Spector and Jack Kevorkian).
Aside from Pacino, the movie has a slew of other strong players. Holly Hunter adds warmth and heart to a story that otherwise has little of it, and the utterly dependable Chris Messina is cast in a role that plays right to his strengths, riding a line between determined and douchebag. The most exciting surprise though is Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine in a rare role as an actor, playing a motor-mouthed drug addict that owns a tanning salon/”massage” parlor who worships Pacino’s character back from his days as a Little Leaguer being coached by Manglehorn. Perhaps the best quality of David Gordon Green’s casting though is his continued use of non-actors and unfamiliar faces to fill out the movie with characters that seem authentic to life while still feeling novel to film.
Manglehorn is the third movie in a spiritual trilogy from David Gordon Green looking at fading masculinity, but is the least grounded in reality of the three (the other two being Prince Avalanche and Joe). The amalgam of interesting ideas unfortunately amounts to a confused product, a movie that explores themes like the importance of staying social, having faith and acting good, but amounts to little more than that: an exploration. Fans of David Gordon Green’s work will likely be enthralled by the various vignettes the director likes to sprinkle into his work, but like a short scene in which the titular character’s locksmith store rumbles in an earthquake for 15 seconds, only for the moment to go unmentioned throughout the rest of the movie, Manglehorn has intriguing scenes that become lost within a messy film.
David Gordon Green’s return to Texas is carried by its strong performances but let down by its awkward mix of experimental elements.