Review: Slow-burn drama ‘Manglehorn’ gives Al Pacino his best role in ages

VENICE – Yesterday's Al Pacino vehicle here at Venice, “The Humbling,” was a disappointment: this is not the Pacino you are looking for. Thank goodness, then, for “Manglehorn”, where the sure directorial hands of David Gordon Green know exactly how to unlock latter day Pacino's strengths while reining in his worst excesses.

Shot in November of 2013 over just 25 days in Austin, “Manglehorn” is an often impressionistic character study of a grumpy locksmith, A.J. Manglehorn, but before you run away screaming that you can only take so many impressionistic character studies in one year (off the top of my head, other recent examples include “The Goob,” “Locke,” “Boyhood,” “Winter Sleep,” Green's own “Joe”), I'll note that it is among the decent examples of the form. It's difficult to write characters studies about happy people with few obstacles (Mike Leigh's “Happy-Go-Lucky” is an unusual exception), so the usual form is to either put a decent person through the wringer or make your lead an ornery S.O.B.

The latter approach can have the unintended effect of making it difficult to connect with or care about the character, but first-time feature writer Paul Logan's “Manglehorn” script happily manages to conjure a guy who's kind of a pain in the ass and often incredibly callous or rude, but fascinating nevertheless. Of course, it helps that he's played by an on-form Pacino, and Pacino is helped by Green's innate understanding of what works on camera (credit is also due to the lovely work of Tim Orr, Green's regular cinematographer since his debut “George Washington”).

While tantrums and outbursts can be electrifying on stage, their inherent energy bridging the distance between the audience and actor, they need to be properly handled on film, where thanks to close-ups enlarging every gesture, they can seem madly melodramatic and shrill (i.e. “The Humbling”). Green understands this, and when Manglehorn loses his shit on returning from a night out and kicks his own kitchen apart, Green doesn't let the scene play out in full grating detail. Instead, we get glimpses of his rage, overlaid with beautifully lit slow-mo footage of his night out, the two images hazily interacting in a dreamy way that is further enhanced by Texan post-rock outfit Explosions In The Sky's stunning score.

Slow-motion is used throughout the film, just infrequently enough to have real impact. It is properly aligned with our sense of the character, so that a striking tracking shot past a pile-up involving half a dozen vehicles and a watermelon truck feels both horrifying and strangely comic. The camera keeps pace with Manglehorn as he strides past the carnage, clutching his prized white cat like a Bond villain, observing the scene in the detail permitted by the slow-mo, while the sound design preserves his distance from events (the sound of the scene is slowed down, too, so that the victim's wails sound like they're reaching us from underwater depths).

So why is Manglehorn so disconnected? Initially, we feel it's because he is so very connected to his memories of Clara, a lost love to whom he writes every day and has built a creepy basement shrine. We soon come to realize that's more of an excuse: he fetishizes her memory, while admitting that he didn't appreciate her when he had her. He finds it easy to form connections with straightforward beings like his cat, his small granddaughter, or a child locked in a car. Throw the complexities of adult men or women at him and he becomes prickly, detached and at a couple of points just plain mean.

There must be something about him, though. Manglehorn is an ex-baseball coach, and one of his former Little League players has grown up into skeevy wheeler dealer Gary played riotously by actor/director Harmony Korine (“Gummo, “Spring Breakers”), who practically worships the old guy. “Coach! Coach!” is a constant refrain. Since Korine and Green are both part of a generation of filmmakers born in the '70s who came of age in the '80s (the decades of “The Godfather,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Cruising,” and “Scarface”), it's tempting, if a little fanciful, to read a kind of meta-gratitude into Gary's constant expressions of appreciation for what his iconic old coach did for him. The fact that these days, he seems to be a shadow of his former self doesn't seem to matter. This coach, Gary avers, used to perform miracles.

Even disastrous non-compliments like “you remind me of a racehorse” cannot unseat Holly Hunter's bank clerk in her cautious but tenacious pursuit of this unpromising romantic prospect. Following hot on the heels of the sight of Greta Gerwig lip-locking with the aging thesp in “The Humbling,” for a moment Hunter almost feels like his contemporary, before you blink the dust of entrenched stereotype from your eyes and realize she's still 20 odd years his junior.

Are older women really so revolting to older men that it's impossible to cast one opposite a geriatric A-lister as a credible romantic interest? Not that I could ever begrudge an opportunity to see Hunter on the big screen, but it would be great to see more work for people more Pacino's age like — say — Blythe Danner or Candice Bergen. It's not a big problem, it's just that the physical look of an older man/younger woman pairing sticks out as a very conventional visual in a film that is otherwise bubbling with original images (one of the best sequences details a cat being operated on, something I don't think I've ever seen in a film before, though having worked at a vet in the past, I can confirm that it is entirely realistic).

Luckily, this fledgling romance isn't really the heart of the film: it's about a man slowly reaching towards the realization that the adult relationships in his life needn't be conducted at arm's length. This might sound a little dull, but Green infuses the film with plenty of signature comic touches. These take the form of images at least as often as they do dialogue. One tableau sees Manglehorn perched in a tree with his cat. At this point he's as stuck in his life as a proverbial cat up a tree, but like a cat, all he needs to do is take a risk, leap, and he'll land on his feet.

That's the sort of unspoken motif that bubbles under throughout the film and occurs to you as you walk home chatting about the film, and there are tons of these diversions dotted throughout the film, as ripe little symbols left open for viewers to decode or not as they like.

It should be said that some of the film's symbols are more obvious than others, but I'd venture to defend the film from accusations that its metaphors are too transparent — most seem open to more than one interpretation, which cannot, of course, ever be the case with overly specific metaphors that can only fit one literal set of circumstances. Sure, maybe the bees' nest attached to Manglehorn's mailbox represents the sting of rejection as his love letters are returned unopened. Maybe it's as obvious as that. Or maybe it's a reference to the Patron Saint of Beekeepers, St. Ambrose, who wrote: “virginity is fit to be compared to bees, so laborious is it, so modest, so continent. The bee feeds on dew, it knows no marriage couch.” Maybe Manglehorn's lonely daily pilgrimage to his bee-temple represents the state of industriously monk-like purity he so carefully enforces in his own life? I have to say, it's almost certainly not that, because that's a weird medieval reference, but my point is that the image resists a simplistic reading with sufficient vigor. If the sting of rejection theory is correct, why is he never actually stung, and why does he later place the honeycomb inside the mailbox? Is he supposed to be passing on the sting of rejection to his mailman? I don't think so.

“Manglehorn” is a lush, hazy drama that requires a certain open-mindedness, but there's no doubting the craft of its director, who continues to prove himself one of the less predictable and most skilled craftsmen around. And it's frankly a relief to see Pacino remind us that he's still capable of holding our attention for the right reasons with a performance that, while it doesn't rival his powerhouse era, is compelling and well-judged. If you see just one grumpy locksmith drama this year, make it “Manglehorn.”