Filmmaker David Gordon Green has a weirdly binary career. On one side are comedies like Pineapple Express, The Sitter, and Eastbound & Down, and on the other are slow, thoughtful dramas, usually set in the rural South, that show a heavy Terrence Malick influence. Green’s latest, Manglehorn, is of the Malickian variety, a slow, thoughtful drama about an odd and lonely man in Texas. Al Pacino stars as the titular Manglehorn, the odd and lonely man, and he gives one of his best performances in years. There’s so much pleasure in watching Pacino just act, and not shout his lines like a crazy person like he’s been doing for most of the last twenty years. The joy of Manglehorn is his performance—it’s a shame the rest of the movie doesn’t quite stand up to it.
AJ Manglehorn is a locksmith. He lives alone, has a cat he loves more than pretty much everything else in his life, his son seems to hate him but his granddaughter loves him, and the closest thing he has to a friend is his bank teller, Dawn. His mailbox is covered in bees, which is a problem because every day he checks his mail, retrieving letters returned from the mysterious Clara, a woman to whom he writes faithfully, despite the daily rejection of “return to sender”. Manglehorn’s letters to Clara are right on the line between genuine poetry and embarrassingly self-confession, but in voice over Pacino’s delivery is so straightforward and his voice so perfectly weathered that the letters straddle that line without ever being corny.
By far the best parts of Manglehorn are the scenes Pacino shares with Holly Hunter as Dawn the friendly bank teller, followed closely by the scenes Pacino shares with the cat. The supporting cast is small, mostly just Hunter, Chris Messina as Manglehorn’s son, the cat, and Harmony Korine as a pimp, and Hunter gets by far the juiciest part among them. The absolute best scene is Dawn and Manglehorn’s uncomfortable date, with Hunter doing most of her work just by calculating the emotion in her eyes. Usually actors of their caliber in a scene together is bombastic, with everything big or extraordinarily weighted, like Pacino’s scene with Robert DeNiro in Heat where all of the cues scream, LOOK AT THIS. But here Green goes lo-fi, with simple staging and smooth, minimalist camera work, and just lets his actors act. It’s really tremendous.
If only the rest of the movie shared that one scene’s sensibility. There’s almost a feel of experimentation to parts of Manglehorn, but as 85% of the movie is just a straightforward character drama, those bits don’t really fit. For instance, a slow motion scene in which Manglehorn walks past an accident with his cat is nice in and of itself, but it stands out so much from the scenes around it that it’s jarring. It makes Manglehorn feel uneven, and detracts from Pacino’s outstanding performance. He’s so good that the movie doesn’t need visual bells and whistles.
It’s not a minor complaint, either. The experimental bits are so out of step tonally that it will make Manglehorn hard to swallow for many viewers. But if you’re down with Malick or you don’t mind when Werner Herzog starts talking about alligators in the middle of a documentary about cave paintings, then you’re good to go for Manglehorn. It’s a bit of an odd movie but Pacino is so good, and Hunter as well, that it’s worth it as long as you don’t mind the side helping of weird.
Manglehorn is available on demand.