TIFF 2014 Review: Manglehorn (★★★½)

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Manglehorn“Never have I felt more alive than when you looked at me,” murmurs the lonely locksmith (Al Pacino) to the night’s abyss, ruminating on a love from decades before. The words are spoken in voiceover and there’s a beer bottle on the horizon that he aims to shoot. Poignancy echoes off of Pacino’s gravelly voice, bouncing on Manglehorn’s backyard fence, and smacks the audience with the cinematic poetry of the commonplace meeting the sublime (a David Gordon Green specialty).

After you get over the fact that he’s being played by Al “greatest actor in the world” Pacino, Angelo Manglehorn seems like a pretty typical older guy — preferring buffet food to haute cuisine, playing the slot machines, not giving much of a damn about others beyond animals and children. Divorced, his greatest regret is losing “the love of his life,” not his former wife but an early girlfriend. He has a strained relationship with his son Jacob (business bro-turned-emotionally vulnerable Chris Messina), a hot-shot money-broker, but gets along swimmingly with his granddaughter Kylie (Skylar Gasper in a spark of a debut).

Every Friday, he goes to the bank and chats up chipper bank teller Dawn (ever-solid Holly Hunter), swapping stories about their pets. Those chats turn into dates and Dawn, who just loves getting up in the morning and that fresh daily optimism, could possibly be the thing to turn his life around. While at the slots, he reconnects with a man he coached in Little League years ago who now owns a tanning salon.

Sounding a bit too average? Well, throw in a “85 pages of weird shit” script from newbie Paul Logan, Tim Orr’s as always stunning cinematography and a scatting Harmony Korine in a revelatory performance as the seedy “salon” owner, and you’ve got yourself of modern masterpiece of character unravelling at Nabokovian proportions. We are transported emotionally into a world between naturalism and magic realism, with a protagonist who exists somewhere between small-town Texas and Aesop’s Fables (there’s a story told involving Manglehorn, a runaway bull and a stuck-in-hoof nail).

Living in a shabby “smells like garbage” ranch house, Manglehorn’s day-to-day companions are a cat named Fanny and the memory of Clara, the one who got away. He coos “It’s Only A Paper Moon” to his Persian and composes letters of poetic woe to the phantom (the contents of which we hear in his voiceovers — “I looked for happiness. Without you, that doesn’t exist.”). We begin in his corner, seeing this world mostly through his eyes in organic, unconventionally-framed shots and hearing through his sensory perceptions, sometimes overlapping running dialogue, voiceover and near-overwhelming background noise.

Whether in the routine stillness of his empty store or an uncharacteristic club with music and neon lights throbbing, the film sticks with Manglehorn and always returns to that inner monologue about Clara. But as the film progresses and he continues to interact with others, inconsistencies emerge and he becomes a trickier narrator than we first realized. He may have a way with animals and children, but it’s not enough to make up for his treatment of the adults around him.

Manglehorn flips between self-loathing (“If I wanted to talk to a jerk, I’d go home and look in the mirror and talk to myself.”) and acute heartlessness (telling his son he didn’t love his mother, rambling about Clara to anyone and everyone ad nauseum, etc.). In his locksmithing work, he reunites people with their valuables, from a mother with her locked-in-car toddler to a couple with the innards of their safe after a house-razing fire, but never connects with them further than a bare minimum of professionalism. In his private life, he’s jumbled what’s valuable in the here and now with things long lost to the past (i.e. Clara).

Still wondering about the rest of the script’s “weird shit”? Well, here’s a non-spoilery sampling: grown adults lamenting the decline of mimes, Al Pacino up a tree, “You look like a racehorse,” a car pile-up drenched in fruit, close-ups of feline surgery, the town is Crown Rock, Texas (a blink and you’ll miss it Stephen King reference), “a mulatto who won the lotto,” Tim Curry (as in the Austin-based jazz trio not Transylvanian transvestite) walks into a local bank, balloons are everywhere and filled with DHM (aka Deep Hidden Meaning)…

Manglehorn was written for Al Pacino and he embodies the film, stooping in melancholy and trudging through awkward social situations but stopping here and there for moments of whimsy (e.g. talking about a stuffed lion toy as though it were an elephant). His voice carries the gravitas necessary to make the character’s words resonate and the audience follow his POV for as long as they can. While playing the one consistent character, a nuanced Pacino manages to paint both Manglehorn’s vivid, rich inner life and his outer less-than one. There could be some Oscar buzz coming out of TIFF, but he already has stiff competition from early fall fest favorites Redmayne, Cumberbatch and Keaton.

This is a film that will resonate with anyone’s who’s ever been lonely, held on to a years-long regret, or even just has a different way of looking at the world.