TIFF14: Manglehorn

David Gordon Green is one of the most peculiar and prolific American directors working today. He made his name with Southern Gothic dramas and transitioned to Hollywood to do some stoner comedies, but now he’s back doing personal dramas that function more as character pieces than as conventional narratives. Despite this variety of genres, there’s a definite auteur signature to a David Gordon Green film. They favour elliptical editing and the way a combination of images creates a sensation instead of focusing on strict literalism. They always have a curious sound design, layering noises upon each other in ways that clutter a scene and give it a new feel. They’re full of tiny moments of oddness that would’ve been cut from a more conventional narrative. His latest film Manglehorn, starring Al Pacino as a bitter old locksmith hung up on a woman he lost decades ago, is probably the most unconventional of his recent spat of films including Joe and Prince Avalanche.

It doesn’t have much of a narrative other than the possibility of romance between Pacino’s Angelo Manglehorn (what a name!) and a kindly bank teller, Clara (Holly Hunter). Most of the film follows Manglehorn in his daily patterns, highlighting the tiny miracles present in his life (as David Gordon Green styled it after the screening). There are reminders of Green’s last film, the superb Joe, in how we watch Manglehorn in his dingy little house, overturning his table and trashing his toaster in a bout of anger. Like with Joe, Green paints a complete picture of Manglehorn’s life. We see his relationship with his son and his granddaughter and observe the routine of his weekdays and how he likes to eat at the same buffet every night. Most importantly we see how he sees women and how he has idolized a past love to such an extent that he can use it as an excuse to despise the people currently present in his life.

Pacino is the film’s main drawing point. He dials it down considerably compared to his typical performances over the last decade or two, and it benefits him. He’s still got the husky Pacino-isms that have made him such an iconic actor, but there’s a human dimension to this performance that is lacking in much of his late-career work. On a doomed date with Hunter’s Clara that serves as the film’s centrepiece, Pacino is excruciating and awkward and rude in all the right ways.

Aside from the big hitters like Pacino, Green loves working with non-professional actors and playing with improvisation. He gets some choice moments of improvisation in Manglehorn, whether it’s a middle-aged man serenading his wife at a bank or Harmony Korine as a pimp explaining to one of his prostitutes what makes Manglehorn such a special man.

There are risks and moments of oddness that disrupt the film’s flow instead of improving it, but as a whole Manglehorn is a worthwhile experience. After David Gordon Green reminded everyone of how great Nicolas Cage is in this year’s Joe and now has similarly gotten a great performance out of Pacino, I’m convinced he’s one of the best directors at coaxing uncharacteristic performances from actors. Great actors in need of rejuvenation should form an orderly queue.

6 out of 10

Manglehorn (2014, USA)

Directed by David Gordon Green; written by Sam Logan; starring Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Harmony Korine, and Chris Messina.

Manglehorn plays at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations programme.