Matchstick Men is a story about con artists, their relationship with each other, and their relationship with their con. It stars Nicolas Cage as Roy Waller, Sam Rockwell as Frank Mercer and Alison Lohman as Angela.
Roy is a seasoned con man with obsessive compulsive disorder who works with Frank a less experienced but more enthusiastic partner. When the story opens Roy and Frank are running a telemarketing scam taking an initial few hundred dollars from each victim. Then following up posing as agents sent to catch the con artists, they gain access to the victim’s bank accounts.
When Roy accidentally drops his medication down the drain, Frank finds him a psychiatrist to see so he can gain access to medication. The psychiatrist puts Roy in touch with a 14 year old daughter he never knew and offers him a week’s supply of medication for each visit.
Frank convinces Roy to work a con with a much bigger pay-off. The two put an $80,000 scam together but the plan goes awry when Frank’s daughter Angela gets pulled in as a diversion. The victim uses Angela’s booking photo (she was arrested for shop lifting) to find Frank and Roy and attempts to extort money from the trio but Angela shoots him in defense.
Frank awakens in a hospital which turns out to be a façade. He discovers it isn’t real only after he has given his banking information to the man he thought to be his psychiatrist. Frank has been conned out of his life’s savings approximately a million dollars.
There were several ethical dilemmas in this comedy. I will focus on three: the “prescription” Frank’s psychiatrists provides him, the deception of the victim enticed by his own greed, and the conning of the con artist.
When Frank visits his new psychiatrist it is for one purpose only. Frank is out of his prescription medication and his illegal connection has dried up. There’s only one way the psychiatrist can keep Frank coming in and that is to give him a weekly prescription of pills that help him to control his OCD tendencies. The psychiatrist, who we later find is not really a psychiatrist, gives Frank a soy based hormonal supplement for menopause. Although it is not medication for his condition, Frank feels better when taking it. When Frank confronts the psychiatrist with the truth, the psychiatrist responds that he was doing better while taking the soy supplements before he knew what they were.
In conversation with his psychiatrist Frank explains the difference between who he is and who a criminal is. His victims “give” him their money and he has never taken money from anyone who didn’t “let” him out of “greed or weakness” and he never uses violence. What part does the victim play in the con? When Frank and Roy plan to take $80,000 from their big stakes victim, could it have been accomplished without the victim’s own greed playing a part? Likewise with the housewife in the opening con, if her greed had not played in to the opportunity to get a new car would she have given them the $700 they’d asked for? And then if not for her husband’s weakness (anger) would they have been able to gain access to their account?
Roy puts together an elaborate plan to con Frank out of his life’s savings. He hires a daughter, a psychiatrist, police officers and a victim. Together they manipulate Frank into believing he has developed a loving relationship, has gained control of his OCD tendencies and should give up his career as a con artist in an attempt to play a more active role in his daughter’s life. Frank is initially brought in to this con by his greed and is blinded by his weakness, the loving relationship he has developed with his daughter. He is then the victim, being conned out of the money he has conned so many others out of in his career.
The two fallacies I detected in this story were ad hominem and two wrongs make a right. In the case of the ad hominem fallacy the argument being that it was not wrong of Roy to manipulate Frank’s emotions and mental state to gain access to his money. The fallacy would put the attention on Frank’s character and his repeated disregard for the emotional well being of others. In the case of the two wrongs make a right the argument would propose that Roy was only following the “Golden Rule” and doing unto Frank what he had done unto so many others.
I picked this movie because I am a huge fan of Nicholas Cage and I’d never seen it before. It was entertaining and thought provoking. Admittedly, I was sucked into the con along with Frank. Although he was a “bad guy” taking money from housewives and hopefuls, his flaws made him more likeable. I felt a personal connection to him; his stutter, twitches, door closings and obsessive cleaning endured me to him and I was truly disappointed in Roy for taking advantage of his friend. It was not until the end when Frank tells Angela he “gave” her the money that I truly connected him to his victims. Earlier he’d stated that his victims had given him the money out of greed or weakness and he was admitting his own weakness to her.
I personally find con artists detestable. The term matchstick man was initially a term used for a stick figure. It became a slang definition for a con artist because they create temporary personas that are fleeting and simple. Take away my Nicholas Cage groupie status and the lovable quirkiness of his character Frank and I’d say he almost got what he deserved. He and the rest of the list of characters should have been jailed for their crimes and the money they stole should have been returned to their victims. But that would not have been as good a movie.