Al Pacino, playing the title character, delivers his most impressive performance since he starred in Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny a quarter century ago.
By Paul Dervis
Manglehorn is a tiny movie with a huge cast. It was made for less than four million dollars, which probably amounts to the normal salary demands for its two leads. It is directed by David Gordon Green, whose most well-known movie is Pineapple Express, a picture that the target audience for Manglehorn has most likely never heard of, let alone seen. And the writer, Paul Logan, has exactly one short to his credit.
Yet Al Pacino, playing the title character, delivers his most impressive performance since he starred in Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny a quarter century ago.
More of a mood piece than a plot-driven narrative, Manglehorn is about a rapidly aging locksmith, a hermit who seemingly only loves his cat — aside from his perpetual longing for the one love that got away decades earlier.
Though filmed in color, the images come across in sepia tones, lending an ‘Autumn of one’s life’ aura to the proceedings. This melancholy reflects the self-imprisonment of a man whose obsession is that his lost love responds, at least once, to his daily letters to her. He seems to come alive only when he checks his mailbox, a dilapidated concoction on his Texas front lawn that has become a nesting ground for a growing beehive.
But instead of a missive from his lady love, he only receives his own musings back — ‘return to sender.’ He has catalogued these hundreds upon hundreds of misfires in his cramped home, as if he is the dedicated archivist of his own unrequited love.
Not that Manglehorn has never had a life. He was once married, and he had a son. Though we never get a glimpse on what kind of husband he was, we get an eyeful regarding what kind of father he is. His grown boy, Jacob (played with an acerbic understatement by Chris Messina from Argo) is a venture capitalist and a bit of an ass. He gleefully fleeces his clientele to the point he is now under investigation. And he apparently has no use for his broken down bum of a father…and the feelings are mutual.
Jacob does have a girl, Mangleorn’s granddaughter. She is one of the few people Manglehorn has a good relationship with. And this keeps him attached to Jacob.
The other human that he seems to care for is Dawn, the cashier at his bank. He is pleasant and conversational with her, once a week, on Friday, when he comes in to do his banking. She’s dozens of years his junior but they share a common loneliness and, per her urging, they go on a date.
It is a disaster.
Holly Hunter, one of my favorite American actresses, plays Dawn. The only complaint I have about her superb performance here is that there isn’t enough of it. She brings Pacino’s old man out of his shell, and challenges him to live a life in the present. He fights this notion and hurts her deeply with inconsiderate words and actions. But somehow the pain he causes her affects this self-confessed anti-social loner. And it just might be enough to push him out of living twenty years in the past and propelling him into today.
The feel of this character study is honest and true. Pacino has created a character that we don’t, at least initially, care much about, but grows in our estimation to the point that he demands our sympathy if not our affection. He internalizes Manglehorn’s bleak small life with a quiet intensity. He grabs us and then pulls us into the figure’s sad world of forlorn angst. It is a brilliant performance, one that harkens back to Pacino’s heyday as America’s leading anti-hero.
The film’s flaw is that it leaves far too many big questions unanswered. Who was the woman Manglehorn intensely craves from so long ago? Why would this well put together, sane, positive-to-the-core younger bank clerk desire a close relationship with an old man who is unshaven, dirty looking, and reclusive? Necessary exposition are not among this movie’s strengths.
That said, it is visually compelling, with characters that command your attention. It is ninety minutes well spent.
An aside. It’s only showing in the Boston area is at Newburyport’s The Screening Room (through July 30), a small and charming movie house that is well worth the trip itself. Catch Manglehorn before it disappears into the mists of time.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.