Film Review | Manglehorn

Al Pacino is on top form in this slow-burning drama about a forlorn locksmith being gradually coaxed out of his shell. It's just a pity that the rest of the film relies on him to carry it all forward

Drinks for regret: Al Pacino is back is David Gordon Green’s flawed drama about a lonely locksmith being gradually coaxed out of his shell
Drinks for regret: Al Pacino is back is David Gordon Green’s flawed drama about a lonely locksmith being gradually coaxed out of his shell

The quiet character study is often a balm to standard blockbuster fare, offering us a more personal and intimate cinematic experience that should, at best, satisfy the adults in the audience with a viewing experience that fully respects their intellectual capacity and emotional inclinations.

However, the current Hollywood climate requires these dramas to come lumped with super-stars so as to support their otherwise un-lucrative propositions. You could argue that this has always been the case – Hollywood, has, of course always been about the money first – but post-economic recession, when reboots and remakes of established properties are agreed upon as the only ‘safe’ option, perhaps this is even more so now.

Enter David Gordon Green. The director of the likes of Joe (2013) is bringing an indie sensibility into the Hollywood sphere, and is now back with an Al Pacino-starring slow-burner that is about character first and plot second. Evidently, he appears to have hedged his bets on Pacino in a similar way he has with Nicolas Cage on Joe – banking on convincing us that this acting giant still has what it takes after a couple of weak years.

But where Joe had a compelling narrative to work with, Manglehorn has very little except for Pacino’s gloriously fledgling heft to hold on to.

A.J. Manglehorn (Al Pacino) is an elderly locksmith who has all but given up on rediscovering happiness, after the love of his life left him in the lurch. Having alienated both his former wife and his affluent young son Jacob (Chris Messina), Manglehorn spends most of his days either working at his key shop and tending to his – now sickly – cat at home.


Though rediscovering any sense of joie de vivre appears to be a lost cause for Manglehorn at this juncture, his budding relationship with the likeable bank teller Dawn (Holly Hunter) offers a glimmer of something better on the horizon. But can Manglehorn wrestle through his demons to give this girl her due?

Written by Paul Logan, Manglehorn’s problem is not so much that it’s small, nor that it has very thin vestiges of what could pass for a plot. Rather, it’s the fact that it places too much dramatic weight on its star to sustain its story, so that both supporting players and sub-plots – necessary to keep a lightweight movie like this afloat – flounder and turn the whole thing into something of a mess.

The inclusion of cult film director Harmony Korine (Gummo, Spring Breakers) as a drugged-out, tanning-salon owning former student of Manglehorn’s is a clear example of the film’s lop-sided and unnecessarily odd approach.

Each time he steps into the film, Korine appears to import his whole neon-infused, sleaze-inflected aesthetic with him, which is not only at odds with Green’s otherwise earthy approach, but smacks of nepotism. You get a sense that the two directors just wanted to riff off each other for a bit, to the detriment of the final product.

And Korine’s interventions aren’t the only incongruous element of this brew. Manglehorn’s slow-motion ramble through an accident site involving a watermelon truck makes for a haunting tableau, but like all other scenes of its ilk, Green never quite manages to orchestrate them into something coherent, let alone memorable.

And there is potential there – coupled with inspiring sound design, they do work in isolation as portraits of a man whose cord to the world has been cut and who’s gradually swimming further and further away from the rest of us.

But the mechanics of the generic plot insist on getting underway – slight as they are in this case – and the mishandling of Holly Hunter’s Dawn is perhaps the film’s most fatal misstep.

A dinner scene in which she lays out her optimistic worldview is meant to, presumably, present her as a healthy counterpoint to Manglehorn’s increasingly grouchy misanthropy, but what it does instead is ring false, to the point where you can’t take her seriously as a fully-fledged character past that point.

As with most stories of its kind, Manglehorn is invested in rolling out a patchy but easy-to-understand psychological portrait of a damaged male, and the woman that’s supposed to ‘save’ him from himself is actually given short shrift.

Make no mistake, though, Pacino is brilliant. Every bit of monologue – addressed to always-returned letters from the girl who got away – is delivered with gravelly gusto, and every time he talks it’s by turn a wellspring of sadness, regret and rage ably delivered.

But the monologues are trite exercises in bad literature, and the conversations are predictable despite Pacino’s best efforts to lend them an improvised flourish. The cat is cute, though.