Overview: Haunted by a long-lost love, an aging locksmith struggles with the relationships of his current life. 2015; IFC Films; Rated PG-13; 97 Minutes.
The Labor of Heartache: In the movie All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green’s undervalued sophomore feature length effort), there’s a character named Leland (the uncle of the film’s protagonist Paul) who contextualizes his nephew’s virginal broken heart with his own inability to move on from the loss of his wife. At the height of his sulking, Paul and a group of young, male friends are circling a campfire, when Paul states the he wishes that he had never met Noel (the young woman whose personally perpetrated betrayal is the central conflict of the film). At this point, Leland (who has heretofore been quietly occupying the edge of the screen, for the duration of the exchange) chimes in, passively, “No, you don’t,”assuring Paul, “I can tell you that right now.” When I watched the film with my girlfriend, I waited for the scene to end, and pointed out that I thought this was a painfully sad exchange. She disagreed. “Can you imagine having someone like that around all the time, always making everything about their own tragedy?” And she’s right, of course; Leland’s application is applied cautiously All the Real Girls. If Leland’s presence had loomed over for one or even two more scenes, his character would have proven too laborious to suffer within the context of the drama depicted on screen, a fact which I can confirm now, as Manglehorn is David Gordon Green’s movie solely about Leland, even if he is called by a different name.
The Lens of Heartache: There is a comparable sense of loss that permeates Green’s most tragic male characters (Paul Schneider in All the Real Girl, Nicolas Cage in Joe, Sam Rockwell in Snow Angels, and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche). Their collective state of sadness, however, in narrative application, is never strictly a story-serving measure in the value of the ruined relationships from which they stem. Rather, this consistent heartache is applied as a character trait, a fallback that the characters themselves use as justification for their own poor treatment of other people. The male heroes of Green’s films are typically bad people, or at least bad at being people. A. J. Manglehorn (Al Pacino) is another one of those bad people (perhaps the worst that Green has ever authored). He is certainly the most tiresome and grating, as we watch him willfully ruin a lunch with his semi-estranged son, and sabotage a date with bank teller Dawn (Holly Hunter, in one of the best supporting roles of 2015). Though the inflated prose of his early monologues might mislead one to think otherwise, earned sympathy isn’t the intent of Green’s character, or Pacino’s performance, as romance isn’t a concern of his story. If you believe Manglehorn (and you shouldn’t), it all falls back to that lost loved, which we realize pretty quickly is never going to be reconciled. We can also safely assume that that love’s failure was the result of Manglehorn’s poor, hateful character. His disconnect becomes the lens through which Green can observe the wider world around the Manglehorn character, a reality dreamed into existence by the lost souls that occupy it.
The Poetry of Heartache: And observe, Green does. Manglehorn follows a wandering, longing Manglehorn through distractingly unexpected and unlikely scenes. We move with him into a dance club, around the aftermath of a physically inexplicable seven-car pile-up, and, with his cat, up into a tree seemingly out of reach for such a frail character. Though this collections of scenes and dramatic tableaux are striking and sometime gorgeous, Green stretches farther to find them than he ever has before. The director’s reputed and documented Malick-esque influence shows the limits of Green’s elasticity as a filmmaker. Perhaps for the first time, his whimsical, visual poetry displays the light wear and tear of being stretched a bit too far, an offense compounded by the notably effective emotional gravity at the heart of the personal exchanges from which Green’s camera too often departs in pursuit of more image-based artistry.
Overall: There is much to be appreciated about both the performances and the poetry within Manglehorn, even if Director David Gordon Green (for the first time) miscalculates his ability to balance the two.