This was supposed to be the year of Al Pacino’s big comeback. Instead, the lamentable The Humbling (2014), which saw the venerable actor indulged as an unstable monologuing thesp, snuck straight onto DVD in the UK as The Last Act. Meanwhile, Danny Collins (2015) received a theatrical release in this country, but was an equally turgid affair in which Pacino’s ageing crooner proved the least palatable element. Fortunately, while it is far from perfect, David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn (2014) rights the ship, somewhat – not least in the form of Pacino’s own understated and fragile lead performance as a lonely and melancholic locksmith.
The symbolism might be on the nose – myriad keys hang behind Angelo Manglehorn (Pacino) at his shop – but he’ll be damned if he can cut one that unlocks his embittered heart. It was sealed years earlier by a soulmate who left him pining for her through a marriage, fatherhood and beyond. “I’m a tough man to be around,” he concedes to Holly Hunter’s pretty bank clerk, Dawn. The awkward date that they go on – where Angelo bemoans every human being’s banality when compared to his long lost love, Clara – suggests that’s something of an understatement. She holds a mythic sway over him and he spends his spare moments penning love letters to her she’ll never see.
In reality, Clara may never have existed, and may just be a figment created by Manglehorn’s mind to keep his walls up strong and high. The screenplay – written by Paul Logan – treads the fine line between reality and fantasy, often punctuating the former with dreamlike incursions that border on the supernatural. In that sense, Manglehorn is reminiscent of Gordon Green’s recent Prince Avalanche (2013) which equally flirted with the metaphysical and featured a central character writing declarations of love to his sweetheart. Where that film’s cinematography felt naturally expansive, on this occasion Tim Orr is careful to accentuate Manglehorn’s isolation through space. The world is illuminated by strip lights and the green and blue palette / social disconnection calls to mind Hopper’s Summer Evening or A Room in New York.
The diner from Nighthawks is also precisely the kind of place that Angelo would be found, eating alone, grumbling about the $4 price hike before going home to check on his unwell cat, Fanny. Where Pacino’s recent career may have been dominated by his overbearing shouting, this is a far more subtle turn. What was missing in Danny Collins and The Humbling has clearly been channelled into painting this touching portrait of a man so adrift in the self pity of what he’s let slip by him, that he’s pushed away all subsequent chances at happiness. As a late scene suggests – once again with heavy-handed allegory – perhaps the key he needs is not one of his own cutting, but one provided by the kindness of others, if only he’ll accept it. For Pacino, Manglehorn seems to have been just that, and it’s great to see him back on form.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson