Al Pacino is so famous for going overboard that you can easily forget how good he is at conveying quiet resignation. In The Godfather Part II, Donnie Brasco, The Insider, and large parts of Carlito's Way, Pacino beautifully embodies a type of wounded masculinity, playing characters who aren't happy with how their lives have turned out but whose integrity demands they sleep in the bed they've made. The actor can communicate years' worth of disappointment with a sigh, drawn-out line reading, or downcast expression. Guilt seems to exert physical force on his sadder characters, who go about their business as if in constant, aching pain.
David Gordon Green's Manglehorn, which runs this week at the Siskel Center, features Pacino at his most melancholic, playing a solitary old locksmith in a dilapidated area of Austin, Texas, whose best friend is his pet cat. Yet in spite of the subdued performance, the movie is a tribute to the other Pacino—the outsize Method actor who's never afraid to embarrass himself in the pursuit of spontaneous expression. Green presents the title character's capacity for surprising behavior as something of a magic power (a possible metaphor for Pacino's gift as an actor), albeit one that the possessor is unable to control. Manglehorn is a positive influence on others, but only when he doesn't try to be. It's something of a Midas touch.
He also has trouble controlling his anger, blowing up over trivial matters and ruining his relationships. In this regard, Manglehorn is a perfect role for Pacino the ham—the diva performer who rarely resists the urge to exaggerate when he's onscreen. The movie trades in a sort of dual suspense: Manglehorn could lose his cool at any moment, just as it's always possible that Pacino could break from his finely tuned performance with some Devil's Advocate-style outburst. Green managed a similar kind of suspense in his last feature, Joe, which starred Nicolas Cage (another actor known for bursts of hamminess) as a man with violent tendencies struggling to play it cool. Though Joe's violence was inflicted on other people, Manglehorn just yells and breaks stuff. "Sometimes I beat up my kitchen table," he says at one point. "If the toaster burns my toast, the toaster's gone."
The stakes are much lower here than they were in Joe: some of the more momentous scenes involve a cat undergoing intestinal surgery and Pacino inviting the shy bank teller with whom he's flirted for years (Holly Hunter) to a "pancake jamboree" at the local American Legion hall. And yet Manglehorn feels more like an epic than Joe did. The wide-screen compositions are more expansive, the colors downright gorgeous (cinematographer Tim Orr claims to have taken inspiration for the film's neon-drenched look from Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives), and, thanks to Pacino, one feels the weight of the hero's entire life. Most remarkable, however, may be the enveloping sound design, which interweaves dialogue, narration, and a twinkling score by David Wingo and postrock band Explosions in the Sky. Though it's largely set in run-down, blue-collar environments, Green conveys a sense of childlike wonder throughout, imbuing everyday experience with unaccountable richness. Fittingly, the director has described the film as a naturalistic fairy tale.
Like a character in a children's book, Manglehorn communicates best with animals and young children. His grade-school-aged granddaughter reveres him, and he also has an unlikely fan in a sleazy tanning salon owner named Gary (filmmaker Harmony Korine, in an oddball performance that wouldn't be out of place in one of his own movies), who had the old man as a Little League coach and still regards him as a sage. Manglehorn's interactions with adults, however brief, tend to be positive. As a locksmith, he works to help people out of little jams, and his limited social life also consists of good turns—being a memorably pleasant customer at the bank, keeping veterans company at the American Legion. An odd, yet mostly genial presence, he seems to exist to perk up other people's days. That might sound trivial, but think of how much worse public life would be without such individuals—Manglehorn might struggle sometimes to be nice, but never in vain.
For Green, Manglehorn's neighborhood pride represents a vanishing way of life. Barring the investment banking office where Manglehorn's son (Chris Messina) works, every location we see in the movie looks old and in need of a new coat of paint. Green shot the film in areas of Austin that were just about to be gentrified (several of the locations—including Manglehorn's shop—have already been torn down), and kept signs of digital technology to a minimum. Pacino's careful, Method-style performance registers, in these environments, as another example of old-school craftsmanship, which adds to its poignancy.