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Matchstick Men

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Matchstick Men
from Film Forum, 09/18/03

Roy (Nicolas Cage), the central character of Ridley Scott's modest comedy/crime-caper Matchstick Men, is a quivering mass of distress signals. His body, his mind, his speech, and his daily routine are racked with obsessive-compulsive tics. These are outward manifestations of his inner turmoil. He's a crook—he insists on "con artist" rather than "con man." Roy's apartment may be spotless, but his inner life is a mess. Somewhere along the way, his pregnant wife left him. Now he suspects he might have a child out there and he's trying not to think about it.

Sure enough, 14-year-old Angela (the extraordinary Alison Lohman) shows up and moves in. Roy has to get used to being called Dad even as he adjusts to living with a teenage roommate. Before long, he's on his therapist's couch, head in his hands, trying to figure out how to keep his carefully controlled existence from falling apart. His protégé/partner Frank (Sam Rockwell, goofy as always) is concerned that the new development might disrupt their next big con against a sitting-duck rich guy (Wings Hauser).

Nicolas Cage revels in the chance to be explosive, zany, and manic … a welcome return to his strengths as an actor. He and Rockwell have a wacky, likable chemistry. But the scenes between Cage and the convincingly juvenile Lohman (who is actually 24 years old!) are wonderful—I hated to see them end. Directing this talented cast and casting this story in marvelous color and light, Ridley Scott (Gladiator) has made one of his smallest but finest films, a tale of redemption that is funny, clever, and full of heart.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Steven Isaac (Decent Films) says it "doesn't remotely condone … criminal activity, nor does it portray crime without consequences." He admits, "There's nothing here that we haven't seen before. Yet the acting is uniformly excellent, and, while the climax is easily predictable if one is paying attention, the dénouement is unexpectedly thoughtful and open-ended. The film's biggest surprise isn't any of its twists and turns, but how much we finally care about the characters and their ultimate fates."

"The final scenes … have been criticized by some secular critics," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "For me, it made the film complete. These scenes allow us to see the redemption that is available when we allow love to come into and direct our lives."

David DiCerto (CNS) says the movie "impart[s] a crime-burns-you-in-the-end message. This stance, however, is undermined by … a crime-is-cool attitude."

Movieguide calls it "a great story of redemption. The very last scene is a tearjerker, love-of-family moment." But then the reviewer claims that this "great story" is "spoiled by foul language, sexual content, and a portrayal of teenage drinking and smoking."

Similarly, Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) praises the writing, acting and direction of this criminal's story. But he is disappointed by the film's profanity, cigarette smoke, and other details related to the criminals' uh … criminal behavior.

How can a movie properly portray a criminal, behaving like a criminal, surrounded by criminals, and yet keep the audience from glimpsing any offensive behavior? Should storytellers to edit out glimpses of immoral behavior from stories about redemption?

Elsewhere, frequent faith-and-film blogger Barbara Nicolosi notes: "I found the dark and disturbing last act of the film to be completely irreconciliable in tone to the first two acts which were funny and humane. If you have nothing else to do, Matchstick Men won't make you sick. It won't make you well though either." (Reader beware: Nicolosi's blog hints at the twist-ending, so you may want to avoid reading this until after you've seen it.)

from Film Forum, 09/25/03

Last week I credited the Decent FilmsMatchstick Men review to the wrong Steven. The review was written by Steven D. Greydanus, not Steven Isaac (a critic for Plugged In.) I also said Wings Hauser co-starred in the film, but I was confusing Hauser with his co-star from The Insider—Bruce McGill. Perhaps I should warn readers that the film Matchstick Men causes confusion and disorientation in those who see it. Apologies to the readers, reviewers, and artists.

from Film Forum, 10/09/03

Heather Mann (Relevant) recommends Matchstick Men, but she calls it "a drama masquerading as a confidence movie masquerading as a drama. The object of confidence movies is to con the audience.The object of dramas is for the main character to change in a meaningful way.The fact that this movie is both a drama and a confidence movie dilutes the effectiveness it has as either type of movie."

On the same page, a reader disagrees: "[The film is] not masquerading as anything … it's intentionally defying convention, which is something we will see more of from moviemakers, musicians, artists in general. And in response, we need to cheer them on for venturing into new territories, rather than demand a categorization of their work."