A.J. Manglehorn is a reclusive Texas key-maker who spends his days caring for his cat, finding comfort in his work and lamenting a long lost love. Enter kind-hearted bank teller Dawn whose interest in the eccentric Manglehorn may just be able to draw him out of his shell. Written by
Film critic Mike D'Angelo mentions that Manglehorn is perhaps David Gordon Green's least distinctive film, and from the moment I read that, I had to agree with it. Manglehorn lacks the elements of grittiness and naturalism that Green's previous features housed, most likely because this particular effort wasn't written by him. Most of Green's trademarks - standout cinematography by Tim Orr, elements of impressionism, and exploration of a societal underbelly - are either absent or significantly muted. Manglehorn takes on a more episodic structure than the distinctly natural personality Green often conveys, and between a wide variety of intimate short films, a debut film like George Washington, deviations like The Sitter and Your Highness, and recent projects like Joe and this one, Green has proved he can defy everything from conventions to expectations.
Our titular subject is played by Al Pacino, a veteran actor who, in just his most recent performances in this film and Danny Collins, has given way to a tender, more contemplative side to his decades of character acting. He's A.J. Manglehorn here, a professional key-maker who goes about his day locksmithing everything from cars to storefront doors. One look at Manglehorn from an uninformed outsider and they see a man who confidently goes about his day, his job, and his doings, not thinking twice about anything and ostensibly trying to get his job done as efficiently as possible. Yet, Manglehorn is hurting immensely, as we can tell from sporadic voiceovers throughout the film.
Manglehorn fondly recalls the woman he loved and lost; his and her circumstances are left mostly unclear. He speaks so fondly of her that we get the feeling that when she left, everything around him crumbled. He built his life, his personality, his mood, and his feelings around a woman that he effectively made himself miserable to make sure she was happy. Now that she's gone, all Manglehorn can do is proceed forward on autopilot, incessantly caring for his cat and trying not to be fazed by every day activities. His son Jacob (Chris Messina) and him have a frigid relationship, his old friend Gary (Harmony Korine in a role that fits him like a glove) keeps popping up at the most inconvenient times to say the most insensitive thing, and the female bank teller (Holly Hunter), who flirts with him on a consistent basis, doesn't even bring him to a smile.
I identify so much with Manglehorn it's almost frightening; the days where you seem to be on autopilot, the perfunctory interactions that feel like monumental events in your own mind, and the persistent feeling of emptiness and hunger for someone you cannot have are all things that have burdened me this year. The strongest emotional empathy one can have with Manglehorn will come if one has specifically tried to cope with loneliness, the deprivation of someone that makes them happy, and the inability to solely live with one's self.
However, as a film, Manglehorn really shows what Pacino is capable of in his current state. At seventy-five, Pacino wears his straight-forward mug and his slicked back, gray hair with a sense of confidence, expressing contemplation and the weariness of life experience in every facial expression. This is a seasoned actor at work here and, much like in Danny Collins, Pacino's character is likable here because we immediately grasp the sense of what his character wants.
Writer Paul Logan captures Manglehorn's story in an episodic fashion, one that gives each character his or her respective dues but ultimately circumvents to show how Manglehorn himself feels with every reaction. He's a vulnerable character, one that can have an unpredictable reaction to any situation and somebody who, after meeting the woman he truly loved, goes through each and every day with a lot of pain. On this basis alone, he's a character fit for a movie.
David Gordon Green's last film, Joe, was another big winner in my book, capturing the humid south to a tee and showing a fragile but unmistakable bond between a workaholic lumberjack and a young teenager. Manglehorn, however, marches to the beat of a different drum. Shot with the respectable sensitivity of Green is known for, yet muting his and cinematographer Tim Orr's characteristics throughout, Manglehorn is a film stripped of gimmicks and cheap ploys that helps get right to the character here - a troubled and emotionally hurt man who is trying to get through every day with his sanity still intact. Again, I can relate immensely.
Starring: Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Harmony Korine, and Chris Messina. Directed by: David Gordon Green.
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