by Jason Callen
MANGLEHORN is a film about addiction. You won’t see star Al Pacino drowned in liquor or buried in cocaine though. You won’t see him shoot junk into his veins or suck on a crack pipe either. No, Manglehorn’s addiction is much more insidious than those. Manglehorn’s drug of choice is the past. When we first meet the aging locksmith he is opening his shop, going through the routine of his morning, and dealing with small annoyances that we will soon learn cause him needless and exaggerated frustration. On the soundtrack we hear him composing a letter to a woman named Clara. We get no information about her but it’s clear from the letter that Manglehorn loves her and misses her greatly.
Living alone with his cat, he can devote his entire existence to regret. The letters he composes are full of sadness and longing, they’re confessional but there is a tone to Pacino’s voice that accepts them as futile. We soon learn why as we see him retrieve his mail only to find the letter marked return to sender. He then takes it to a room, which he keeps locked, and disappears inside. Director David Gordon Green wisely keeps us outside this room. We don’t need to go in, we know what’s there: evidence of Manglehorn’s addiction. How severe it is we don’t learn right off but the film quickly establishes this as a pattern of behavior. Also included in this pattern are violent though ultimately mild outbursts that result in the damage or destruction of his possessions. This isn’t the raging Pacino that you’re probably picturing right now though. Instead Green and editor Colin Patton superimpose the outburst with a later moment, which we fade into, given the impression of Manglehorn recalling the recent event. This technique successfully enlarges Manglehorn’s capacity for regret, allowing him not only to dwell upon the mistakes of his distant past but to question his every action. Every moment exist to be scrutinized. Every silence is a chance to contemplate the whys and what ifs.
Any yet he’s not completely miserable. He has his aforementioned cat, who he adores, and he has Dawn, the bank teller he sees once a week when he makes his deposit. He cares enough about her to wait until customers have finished at her window rather than use a different teller. They flirt, well, she tries to flirt but he mostly talks about his cat or the random events of his day. She clearly likes him but he seems to have to force the conversation, like he’s aware of his addiction but doing his best to be a functional member of society. Still, they get along so when he mentions a breakfast at the Legion (or some similar type place, I can’t recall) and she says she’s always wanted to check it out, rather than discourage her, he does the opposite, most likely figuring she’ll never show up anyway. She of course does.
There is also Gary, played by Harmony Korine. To continue the addiction metaphor, Gary is the pusher. He is also the only character that gives us any insight into Manglehorn’s past beyond his longing for the one who got away. Apparently he was a coach, and perhaps a teacher. Gary informs us of this the first time we meet him, a chance encounter in a nearly empty casino where Manglehorn is playing the slots. Gary is enthusiastic to see the old coach but all he talks about is “those days,” which just feeds Manglehorn’s suffering. We also learn from Gary that Manglehorn has a son (who went to school with Gary), who was a meek kid but who has become successful in the meantime. Gary is himself successful, as he is the owner of a local spa/tanning joint/ massage parlor. He’s played to sleazy perfection by Korine but, as with all the acting here, he doesn’t overdo it to the point of caricature. He does however, behind all the self-aggrandizing talk and his subtle mocking of Manglehorn, seem to genuinely care about him, you know, in his way.
Shortly after this encounter we meet Manglehorn’s son Jacob, played by Chris Messina. It’s a quick seen set in Jacob’s office where Manglehorn has come to just check in on him. It’s an odd moment that informs us that Jacob doesn’t have much love for his father. Perhaps it has something to do with Manglehorn’s easy admission that he never loved Jacob’s mother but the film never really delves into it, to our benefit and the films. The seen works to further show us how Manglehorn is a functional addict. He’s not locked away in a room somewhere hiding from everyone; he is putting himself out there, trying to make connections and to release his mind from his obsession.
As is often the case with addicts, true recovery can’t begin until they hit rock bottom, and Manglehorn addiction to the past is no exception. Having had a pleasant semi-impromptu first date with Dawn, Manglehorn agrees to see her again. They meet for dinner and things seem to be going nicely. Dawn is clearly into him and he seems to be similarly interested. At some point during the conversation though, Manglehorn becomes nervous. It’s almost as if he feels like he cheating on Clara. He begins to talk about her glowingly and makes it painful clear to Dawn that he is still in love with. Naturally she is upset and leaves Manglehorn sitting there alone and confused, somehow not able to put together the cause and effect of the last few moments.
Where does an addict go at a moment like this? To his dealer of course. In this case Manglehorn finds himself in the establishment run by Gary. I say “finds himself” because the whole sequence is filmed and edited as one might expect a drug trip to be in a more conventional addiction movie. Images are overlaid, sounds are heard but not heard and through it all stumbles Manglehorn, completely awash in his sickness. Gary tries to cheer him up by getting him a “massage” from one of his girls. At this point Manglehorn snaps out of his reverie and blows up at the girl and Gary, insisting that he is not the kind of person who would partake in such a thing, which he isn’t. He lashes out at Gary physically which marks the only time we see his rage directed at anything but inanimate objects. As he leaves Gary lying in the parking lot wonder why he is so angry, Manglehorn has reached his end; he either needs to confront his addiction or it will consume the rest of his life.
The confrontation comes in two forms, one incidental, and the other deliberate. The incidental is a second conversation with his son, who comes to him in destress about financial issues. Most movies would use this moment to allow the addict to relieve himself of guilt and beg for forgiveness. Refreshingly Manglehorn doesn’t take this route, instead Manglehorn uses it as an opportunity to bolster himself in regards to his parenting (“I was there…everyday…taking you to school…”). Telling it how it is has a reinvigorating effect on Manglehorn. Finally we see the true weight of his addiction and it is intimidating. Decades of self-torture filed away for future torture. There is no hope for Manglehorn if the room exists, so he does what must be done.
If any of this sounds conventional let me assure you that it is not. Besides using the past as a story about addiction, which in itself is unconventional, David Gordon Green and cinematographer Tim Orr (who has shot all of Green’s films) aren’t afraid to relish life’s little asides and incongruities, even if they don’t have anything to do with the plot. Take for instance a moment when the manager at Dawn’s bank gets sung to or the innocuous but persistent way a bee hive plays a part. These moments and others like it elevate the film to a level somewhere nearer to magical realism than realism. The ending, which I will not go into, provides further evidence.
David Gordon Green and his web of collaborators have created a sorrowful, beautiful, and disarming film. It contains some of the best work of all involved, including Pacino, whose tormented but likable Manglehorn is a truly unique creation. It didn’t get a lot of press and was hardly seen by anyone but I wouldn’t waste any time getting to it. MANGLEHORN is one of the year’s best films.