Discovered an alternate universe the other day. Stumbled upon it by accident, stayed for a while to check it out. Pretty weird. Their eggs and ham are green and Transformers: Age of Extinction won Best Picture. Hoverboards are the primary mode of travel, everyone’s wearing Air McFlys. Don’t know why, but strong suspicion that George Bailey never existed. Can’t tell which universe is good and which is evil. Met their film director David Gordon Green and discovered him to be a talentless hack who sold out after making a few good movies and now just makes big budget stuff. He did the Oscar-winning Transformers. They’ve him to thank for those Batman/Terminator crossover movies and can look forward to his upcoming Star Wars anthology film R2-D2 Rises. In their universe David Gordon Green also directed Pineapple Express and Your Highness and The Sitter…ah, no, wait, that’s ours.
Thankfully, our David Gordon Green turned away from the big budget stuff in order to make movies like Manglehorn. While Bizarro DGG turned to the dark side and never came back, the chunk of studio comedies characterized by Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter just seems like a temporary detour in our world. Even if you liked those flicks, the point stands that Green’s career has followed one of the more unpredictable paths you’re likely to find on any Hollywood résumé. His first several features were intimate character dramas, beginning with the phenomenal coming-of-age tale George Washington. Most were well-received and all were small-scale, independent features. Understandable, then, that when three green things converged — money, weed, and David Gordon — and resulted in Pineapple Express, more than a few eyebrows headed north.
But after three Apatow-esque efforts Green made Prince Avalanche, a kind of neither-here-nor-there dramedy that wasn’t anywhere near as goofy as the previous three. In retrospect Avalanche seems like Green tacking back towards the point he started from, and his next film Joe was both a return to form and one of Green’s best films since George Washington. There is a realism to the heavy-drinking, backwoods Joe that nearly transcends the medium, that drags you in and makes you think and feel that what you’re watching is real. At the same time (either running alongside the realism or somehow borne of it) there’s a strange, cosmic sense of something very surreal, something supernatural, subtly manifesting itself in a forest snake or the moonlight on the barrel of a gun.
Manglehorn is like Joe in many ways. The realism is action-based, detailed, and largely due to the performance from Al Pacino as the forlorn Manglehorn. He opens up shop (he’s a locksmith) in relative silence, unlocking the doors, flipping the sign from CLOSED to OPEN, turning the overhead lights on, sighing when one of the floodlights on the counter strip blows out. He fishes around for a new bulb, drags the ladder over, clambers up, screws it in. The second bulb blows immediately. Manglehorn wilts in place. These scenes probably take up no more than a paragraph of the script, but they tell a lot about the character nonetheless. Even the dialogue-based scenes tend to be mercifully devoid of characters explaining the plot, focusing instead on the action at hand. Hell, the first exchange is between Manglehorn and a Spanish woman who’s accidentally locked her child in the car — the conversation is non-communicative because she doesn’t speak English, so the pair are basically talking to themselves and gesturing to the car for three minutes.
But in Manglehorn the surrealism of Joe is intensified to such a degree that it’s jarring — in a good way — when the realism cracks open. One slow-motion shot follows Manglehorn as he walks down the road. A smoking, recently-crashed car enters the frame behind him, then another, then another. The whole pileup is draped in red liquid that looks like blood but ends up being watermelon juice. Great green fruits seep red onto the crushed hoods and spinning tires, dead-looking figures folded limply out of car windows. Manglehorn plods silently past this terror.
…and then we get a nice scene of Manglehorn’s cat receiving surgery. We’re still wondering what the f*ck was that by the time the scalpel moves toward’s the kitty tummy, and in this way Manglehorn allows the weird inexplicability of one scene to bleed into the mundane-seeming everyday life of the next. The effect is profound. And in some places Green invites us to read more fully into the symbolism of what had in Joe and George Washington before that been more cut-and-dried, such as the beehive attached to the bottom of Manglehorn’s mailbox. It’s literally dangerous for him to approach the mailbox, and so Manglehorn forces us to wonder about him when he keeps going back day after day.
These shifts in realism are all anchored by the main character, drawn beautifully and acted just as beautifully by the never-grumpier, somehow-never-sweeter Pacino. Manglehorn is like a modern-day version of the scrivener Bartleby, lacking that portion of the brain that allows for social niceties and easy human communication. He’s very introverted, but not because he wants to be. It’s an inviting prospect to read into the symbolism within Manglehorn, too, especially with regards to his profession as a locksmith. He spends his days allowing other people access to things that they’re unable to access themselves, though he can’t do the same for himself. His shrine is accessible, technically, but it’s locked all the same because Manglehorn is so unable to let go of his past failures. Ironic for a locksmith who makes his living helping people unlock what’s theirs so they might move on with their lives: Manglehorn needs a Manglehorn.
Back in the alternate universe, Evil Doppelgördon Green kept right on trucking with goofy studio comedies and large-scale Hollywood flicks. He did make Manglehorn, but it was a larger, less lifelike, more formulaic movie called Return to Sender or The Key to Love or something. The one from our reality is much better, much more like reality. The film ends with a quick scene of Manglehorn approaching his truck, reaching for the handle, and finding it locked. He looks over as a mime accidentally looses two balloons into the air; they’re tied together, whispering interpret us. “I’m locked out,” he calls to the mime, prompting the guy to toss a pretend pair of invisible spare keys over. The locksmith catches them, laughs, the mime drives away. Manglehorn pushes the pretend key into the lock…and, well, you might guess what happens next. It’s not real, but it’s real.