Few recent filmmaking careers offer as much incentive for a long view than David Gordon Green. In various moments of the past decade, Green has appeared to make abrupt turns from indie poetry to broad comedy (Pineapple Express), overstay and overindulge his welcome in studio filmmaking (Your Highness; The Sitter), retreat back into the indie world (Prince Avalanche), and now, with the lukewarm reception afforded Manglehorn, again overstay his welcome as a go-to director for movie stars willing to go small.
But stepping back from his filmography and looking it as a whole, Green’s work makes a lot of sense. If anything, his movies feel more unified now than they did a decade ago. Intentionally or not, Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter form a three-film set of druggy, off-kilter studio comedies. (The last two are especially better than their dismal reputations as sell-out screw-ups.) Now Manglehorn, with Al Pacino as the title character, a slightly doddering locksmith, completes another unofficial trilogy of Texas-set indies. It’s very much of a piece with 2013’s Avalanche and 2014’s Joe, even if it can’t quite match those two films’ loose, quasi-improvisational lyricism.
That’s not to say that Manglehorn — in select US theaters and VIOD on 19 June — follows a stricter script. If anything, it’s even baggier and less plotty than other Green movies, playing like a less excruciating version of Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, which also called upon Pacino to mumble and ramble and wander around. Manglehorn doesn’t operate with the same hubris as Pacino’s actor in the earlier film, but he does carry on. He talks to his beloved cat, and he writes letters to Clara (Natalie Wilemon), the long lost love of his life and not, notably, the mother of his irritable financier son Jacob (Chris Messina), even as these letters are returned to sender repeatedly. Less grandly but loudly, he also lectures a woman whose small son he rescues from her locked car about keeping the vehicle cleaner.
Throughout the movie, Green and Pacino emphasize Manglehorn’s inability to accept many forms of attention, good or bad. Jacob finds it hard to connect with his father, and so, eventually, does Dawn (Holly Hunter), a bank clerk who has forged a friendly relationship with the old man and (somewhat inexplicably) hopes for a more romantic connection. He keeps running into Gary (Harmony Korine), whose Little League team he used to coach, and who (again, somewhat inexplicably) idolizes Manglehorn as he prods the older man to visit his sleazy new tanning salon. Manglehorn doesn’t appear particularly to like Gary, but he brings him up and defends him to Jacob during a contentious dinner. Eventually, we come to see Manglehorn as Gary and Dawn do, that is, more desirable in the abstract that in the flesh.
Again and again, Manglehorn nearly connects with people around him, and then gently fails. This threatens to grow repetitive, but Green has both an eye and ear for his characters’ environments that makes them seem bigger and stranger than they should be. In one shot, Manglehorn trudges past a surreal multi-car accident that has left watermelons split open all over the road; elsewhere, Green superimposes images of Pacino over other scenes, suggesting Manglehorn’s half-ghostly existence. Despite its focus on Manglehorn’s rambling, the movie doesn’t feel insular; Green and screenwriter Paul Logan give several side characters mini-monologues, and Pacino delivers one that’s especially delightful and horrifying, about witnessing an amusement park accident in his youth. These moments help to counterbalance the droning voiceover of Manglehorn’s letters to Clara, which belabor his disconnection from the life in front of him.
Still, and even with such counterbalancing, Manglehorn is more of a mood piece than Green’s other small town stories, without the unexpected laughter that makes All the Real Girls and Prince Avalanche so endearing. It includes a few funny bits, but Pacino, is more quiet and weary than comic (sometimes we laugh at his more rococo characterizations, but despite Pacino’s rep as a late-period over-actor, he is, at this point, pretty far removed from his Heat and Devil’s Advocate days). Harmony Korine’s Gary could be funny — would be funny, probably, if played by Green regular Danny McBride, who produces here — but filmmaker Korine is so convincing as low-life irritant that he can’t say anything particularly funny or surprising.
Taken on its own, Manglehorn is a bit of a curiosity or perhaps a Pacino performance piece rather than a triumph. But within Green’s oeuvre, it gains heft. In a way, Green’s Texas films tell the same, shape-shifting story. In Prince Avalanche, two young-ish men work maintenance on a road that cuts through a forest, in the aftermath of devastating fires. The title character of Joe also works in the Texas forests, but poisoning trees so a lumber company can clear the land, while he wrestles with his own troubled past. Manglehorn has less of Green’s trademark wilderness shots than even some of his comedies, but Pacino’s character is not unlike Joe, haunted by a less specific (and presumably less criminal) bad history, still working his trade well into his twilight years.
Manglehorn finds Green closing out this section of his career, ready for another challenge. Its last few minutes bring the Texas trilogy to a lovely end, with the kind of final shot you may anticipate just a moment or two before it happens, not predictable so much as correct. Even Green’s smaller accomplishments have a sense of purpose.