A bee's nest beneath a mailbox. A boat bedecked in copies of a photograph. A cat who’s swallowed a key. A mime, a buffet, an earthquake, a multi-vehicle car accident inexplicably strewn with smashed watermelons. David Gordon Green’s slow, indulgent but fathomless “Manglehorn” contains all of these motifs and more, sometimes playing out in double exposure, sometimes woozy slow motion, often counterpointed by Al Pacino’s gravelly narration. It should all be a terrible mess, and certainly it’s less accessible than Green's genre-tinged “Joe” or the sweetly straightforward “Prince Avalanche.” But it’s also fascinating to those of us willing to let its meditative currents take us through a mosaic of moods, mysteries, magic and melancholy. This is all anchored by a quietly assured performance that not only may be among the most atypical of Pacino’s career, but may also be one of his best. Even on those occasions when the film's risks do not pay off, we have to credit the courage and confidence it took for Green and Pacino to attempt them; but more often than not they pay dividends and the result gently dazzles.
Green's talents as a director seem to have expanded exponentially in the last few years, and “Manglehorn” is his most ambitious film yet, via its synthesis of his more experimental tendencies with the observant, detailed character portraits that he’s purveyed recently. Working from an unabashedly solipsistic script from first-timer Paul Logan and wrapped in Tim Orr’s evocative, textured cinematography, “Manglehorn” attempts to present this portrait from the inside out: we're so closely aligned to his point of view that it’s almost as if we breathe through Pacino’s character. For those not on board from the outset, that’s undoubtedly an issue and we can see how it might cause an outright rejection of the film. But we were won over by the strength of Pacino’s performance and by the unusual characterization of AJ Manglehorn. As an aging, isolated man whose psychology is a mystery, especially to himself, we found one of the most complicated and contradictory characters we’ve seen of late. Like any real person, he doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Manglehorn is the locksmith in a town where he’s lived for forty years, eking out a largely solitary existence, but not one totally bereft of human contact. There’s a kind of estrangement between him and his son (Chris Messina), a slick, scornful investment banker with a young daughter. And Manglehorn has a circle of casual friends, a mild flirtation with a pretty bank teller (Holly Hunter), and a cat called Fanny whom he adores. He is also, as we discover early on, the subject of unlikely lionization from a local man, Gary (a hilariously sleazy Harmony Korine) who is the same age as his son and who Manglehorn coached in Little League. But there’s a remove to his interactions with all these people, even when he eventually goes on a date, due to an age-old obsession with the love of his life. Clara left him decades ago, before he met the woman he’d marry and father a child with, but Manglehorn has been writing passionate, intricate love letters to her ever since, all of which have been returned unopened.
There is nothing particularly new in the portrayal of a lonely man’s attempts to reconnect with the world —it’s pretty much a staple of the indie film. But what adds texture to this particular portrait is how sweetly the film sketches just enough detail into Manglehorn’s past to make us realize just how much the man in front of us is reduced from the man he was. This “mysterious past” shtick sounds like he has some skeletons in his closet —he was a hitman? he ate human flesh?— but the truth is both more ordinary and more wonderful.
Evoking one of the film's recurring motifs about invisibility and how we can only know we exist when we are seen by others (tellingly, in the first letter from Clara that Manglehorn narrates, he begs to be looked at one more time), three delicately written stories about Manglehorn as a younger man are woven into the film’s tapestry. They mark the only breaks in the rigorous focus on Pacino, by going to places where he’s not present, where people are talking about him instead. Once it’s his granddaughter’s nanny telling her a story of her amazing abuelo; another time it’s Korine’s Gary explaining why, despite his own shallowness, he worships Manglehorn so deeply; yet another it’s Jacob on the phone recounting an incident from childhood. These fragments suggest Manglehorn once possessed quasi-mystical powers, or perhaps he seemed to, especially to children, but it's a magic he has lost. Or maybe his powers are locked away and he misplaced the key.
The film is laden with motifs and callbacks, both the subtle and the signposted, but Green’s humanism shines through. The characterful faces of strangers swim up and away like we’re getting a direct feed from Manglehorn’s consciousness. Later a disappointed “masseuse” gets a tiny reaction shot after he leaves that makes her a person too, and not just a plot device. Everyone, Green seems to be saying, deserves to be seen.
There are plenty of things that don't work: the aforementioned watermelon car crash is one quirky contrivance too far, though it is fun to look at. Hunter's role is underwritten and the script can feel sophomoric when it lapses into overt sentimentality. And there are times when the confluence of overlaid images and husky voiceovers, each telling a different story, overloaded us and we had to choose which one we were going to pay attention to. But mostly the film's craft is audacious and inventive, nicely scored by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo, and gives the film its unusually immersive appeal. And thematically, after "Joe," the film marks Green as a preternaturally keen observer of complex, contradictory men, able to coax subtle, beguiling performances from inveterate overactors. This makes “Manglehorn” feel like a bigger film than its logline suggests, but it is not the kind of big that sprawls. Instead it dives straight down to lower reaches of a complicated man, down to the darkest waters that can contain both monsters and magic. [B+]