“You get one shot at life. Try not to miss.” That’s the tagline of David Gordon Green’s latest film, Manglehorn, and an apt summation of the soggy story inside. The titular role belongs to Al Pacino, who shuffles around a small Texas town as a lonely locksmith with greasy hair and little interest in humans. Yet despite his throaty, confident proclamations of being a grumpy curmudgeon, he consistently encounters and commiserates with a number of quirky faces around town each day, whether it’s his former little league all-star turned politically incorrect tanning salon mogul (a disturbingly hilarious Harmony Korine) or his cute, dog-loving, patiently friendly bank teller (Holly Hunter, at her most fragile). He’s never really present, though; instead, he’s locked up mentally with his own terrors and regrets — like, for example, a dynamite lover he lost decades behind him.
In a sense, he’s stuck in the past, tragically hopeful that he’ll one day have that perfect moment he experienced when he was young. Because of this, he’s rejected everyone around him — including his equally surly son (Chris Messina) — comfortable only with his fluffy cat named Fanny. But, Fanny’s similarly in trouble: she’s a confused cat that’s constipated and refuses to eat. It’s a strange metaphor and parallel, but this is also a strange film, awash in erratic tones that range from disturbing and morose to genuine and saccharine to tantalizing and awkward. Green peppers much of the story with surreal vignettes, specifically a watermelon-stained, five-car pileup, one seemingly impossible tree climb, and an afternoon backwoods dance-off, that all add to the nutty moral fiber lodged inside Manglehorn’s mind.
One might argue that this is a proper conclusion to his “Austin trilogy,” which began two years ago with 2013’s Prince Avalanche and continued last year with the highly underrated Joe. Shooting locales aside, each film has seen Green shake his leads into unique roles that capture the oft-ignored underbelly of America. Paul Rudd painted empty roads alongside Emile Hirsch, Nicolas Cage taught Tye Sheridan how to properly remove trees, and now Pacino and Hunter quell tiny crises with zero fanfare in a shanty and a dusty bank, respectively. In other words, these are characters with societal roles we tend to expect without ever acknowledging, passing by rather innately. Green, on the other hand, finds beauty in the barrens.
As expected, Green lenses the gritty, roughneck areas of Texas with sleek portraits, all rich in color and taste. Whereas Avalanche and Joe enjoyed the great outdoors, Manglehorn heads into town for a more industrial landscape, complete with lush greens, yellows, and (on one startling occasion) neon. He hardly wastes a single shot in the film’s meaty 97 minutes, even during the mundanities like when Manglehorn’s simply eating a tray meal at a desolate, linoleum-lined cafeteria. This isn’t surprising — after all, this is the guy that turned certain moments of Pineapple Express and Eastbound & Down into legitimate pieces of pop art — but it’s almost overwhelming how spectacularly shot this film is from beginning to end.
The same praise could be said of its performances. Pacino takes the lead here, which makes sense given that the role was designed for him by Green and writer Paul Logan, casting aside his trademark quirks (that look better on Bill Hader these days, anyhow) for an exercise in “slumming it.” And boy, does he dial it down. This is a reflective Pacino, tired and battered and bemused with just about everything that life can offer, and yet it’s his most exhilarating performance since, well, 1999’s Any Given Sunday. His supporting cast, namely Hunter and Korine, acts as a springboard for his wrinkled anxieties. It’s unlikely you’ll witness a more painfully awkward sequence than what goes down on his “date” with Hunter. Hoo ha, indeed.
For a character study, Green can hardly do better. Manglehorn is a complicated son of a bitch, itching with problems that only a seasoned actor of Pacino’s caliber can fully employ. We watch his story not with hope but with angst, or dread, or sympathy, knowing damn well that this is a sad, sad man who’s fumbled whatever happy existence he could ever have. Yet it’s hardly as miserable of an experience as how that reads on paper; Green eschews the funereal by embracing the dark comedy of the witty unnatural. It’s a rustic film that capitalizes on the tokens of the past in a style that’s less nostalgic and more endearing (like the smudgy funny papers on Sunday), ultimately suggesting that there’s seldom a further use for emotional relics, that life doesn’t have to end yesterday, and that people are the true source of absolution.
Oh, and that mimes are still a thing.