Movie a Day Blog has to go to full disclosure mode to discuss any film directed by David Gordon Green: I became dean of the North Carolina School of the Arts film school right after his graduation in 1998, and I have dined with him, interviewed him and enjoyed his work since his career began.
His Winston-Salem-filmed GEORGE WASHINGTON (2000) put him on the young American auteur map, quickly deemed a worthy successor to one of his personal heroes, Terrence Malick, with films such as ALL THE REAL GIRLS (2003), UNDERTOW (2005, which Malick produced), and two of my bleaker favorites, SNOW ANGELS (2007) and JOE (2013).
In a kind of cinematic “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” career, Gordon Green is also responsible for the hit stoner comedy PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (2008), followed by the dumber and less successful YOUR HIGHNESS (2011) and the really dumb and unsuccessful THE SITTER (2011).
Gordon Green has clearly found a formula that works for him, alternating more independent-minded serious films with mass appeal, lowest-common denominator comedies particularly adept at mixing contemporary slapstick with ultra-violence, upping the scream/shriek level in action comedy substantially.
Thankfully MANGLEHORN (2014) falls into the arty camp, with Gordon Green doing as effective job as I’ve seen of suppressing Al Pacino’s recent tendency to over-emote, on both stage and screen, until all the scenery has been thoroughly masticated.
By casting the volatile actor as a lowly locksmith (would you hire Michael from the Corleone family to be your locksmith?), Gordon Green forces Pacino to act in a lower key than he’s become accustomed to, and it’s a pleasure to see how much he can still do with body language, furtive and repetitive movement, and a keen sense of self-disappointment dictating most of his actions.
The plot isn’t deep or complex: Pacino spends the whole movie mourning over a lost love that he forfeited through inaction, although the payoff does not justify the prolonged setup. Thank God he flirts with bank teller Holly Hunter, upon whom Gordon Green has bestowed the best part she’s had since starring in Jane Campion’s New Zealand TV series, “Top of the Lake.”
Hunter hits all the emotional notes that Pacino’s character is too fucked up to act upon, and it’s another in a recent string of strong performances by older actresses playing realistic versions of themselves on screen, for a change. Just like Blythe Danner in Brett Haley’s masterful I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (2015), Hunter takes what could have been a stock character and makes her achingly real.
Once Pacino realizes that he has to act with kind of a blanket over his head to make sure he doesn’t erupt, MANGLEHORN (the surname of Pacino’s tough-luck character) settles into a rhythm that is easy to watch, if not particularly compelling. We come to learn all of Manglehorn’s shortcomings, primarily the inability to really care about anyone other than himself, but Gordon Green is good with difficult characters, and he doesn’t condescend to the audience by having Pacino reform his ne’er-do-well too significantly by the film’s predictable end.
Few other contemporary directors under 40 bother to make character studies with this much attention to realistic detail and the writing and directing skills to give them meaningful depth. MANGLEHORN isn’t Gordon Green at the very top of his game — he can do better when he has a stronger narrative to play with.
I’m eager to see his latest film which is in post-production, OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (2016), starring Billy Boy Thornton, Sandra Bullock and Anthony Mackie about Latin American political elections. Maybe an update of Woody Allen’s BANANAS (1971)?
Until then, MANGLEHORN is still better crafted and more interesting than 90% of the other indie films I watch. And yes, I’m prejudiced.