Steven Snyder Reviews ‘The Matador’

     December 26, 2005

Posted by Frosty

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the matador poster

The Matador

Written and Directed by: Richard Shepard

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4

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Review by Steven Snyder

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Julian Noble is one of the more gleefully detestable characters of recent cinema – made that much funnier because he knows it, and doesn’t much care. Not since Billy Bob Thornton took a most crude and vulgar turn in Bad Santa has a character so immediately arrested our interest and continued to jerk around our emotions.

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And as played by Pierce Brosnan in a memorably complex and fractured performance, always shifting between dignified to disgusting, one gets the notion that not even Noble completely understands just who he wants to be.

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The Matador is one of those movies that defies the rules and restrictions that dominate modern Hollywood. Now more than ever it is an industry of formulas and marketing hooks, yet once in a while a film like Dirty Pretty Things or Panic comes along and rises above the mundane, looking down with pity at all those stories that, in some sense, are over before they even begin.

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Confidently and shrewdly, The Matador bucks the trend and the outline, and in its best moments is unpredictable in a way that leaves the audience teetering and enthralled.

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Take the first meeting between Noble and Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), an unconventional chat in a hotel bar between two men who lack a single common interest. Noble is a bisexual philanderer, and not exactly opposed to paying for his companionship. Wright married his childhood sweetheart, and now lives in the burbs. Noble is drunk and depressed, nearing a low point that he soon realizes is nowhere near the bottom. Wright is celebrating as it looks like he’ll win a lucrative business contract and be the savior of the day. ;

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They have other differences too. Take, for example, their jobs. Wright is a suit-and-tie salesman. Noble is an assassin; A good assassin – but one who now has trouble killing people.

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That these two meet is not entirely unexpected. That the film uses their differences to comedic effect is by no means surprising. But the way in which these two fully-realized characters butt heads and interact, the way they form not a friendship per say but an understanding, is inspired.

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Here is a film without a single predictable scene. That initial conversation at the bar, in any other film, would be used to establish the plot, create complications or push for sentiment. But in The Matador, it plays out as two guys – one drunk, one lucid – trying to force awkward conversation until rudeness triumphs, and they storm away.

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Later, this game of back-and-forth will be repeated time and again, in scenes that defy the norm. Noble will push too hard on Wright at a sidewalk café, Wright will be skeptical of Noble’s visit to his suburban home, Wright will be Noble’s shoulder to cry on – and also his motivator – at a most unexpected climax during a race at a horse track.

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And as the film playfully skips over a key scene, only to reveal it later, The Matador sleekly reveals that these two are not that different after all, and poses us with the question of what it would take for Wright to kill, and for Noble to stop?

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The film’s title, in fact, stems from one of the film’s few scenes of genuine good cheer. As both Noble’s alcoholic haze and Wright’s timidity evaporate, the characters sit in the stands of a bull fight, and Noble describes the ceremony and how a skilled matador can kill a bull with one plunge of his sword. There is dignity and grace to be found in this precise death, Noble says, and we see how the arc of the film mimics the arc of the matador’s dance: That Wright, despite his hesitation, comes to see beyond Noble’s vulgarity and identify with…something.

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What that “something” is, and what it means, will no doubt be different for anyone who sees the film. But like all successful stories, The Matador is open to endless interpretation and reinterpretation, unafraid to expose the flaws in its characters and the irrational leaps in its plot.

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At best, the beautifully timid and caddy Greg Kinnear sees something noble about Noble’s commitment to doing his job as cleanly, and professionally, as possible. At worst, Wright sees the subtle – some might say situational – humanity within the glazed-over, suffering, nothing-left-to-lose Pierce Brosnan.

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So what the hell is The Matador anyway? The answer’s a little of this and a little of that, a true gem of scattered themes and intentions. Let’s put it this way: It’s refreshing in all the ways that genre filler, like Cheaper By The Dozen 2, is not, and engaging in all the ways that formula retreads, like Memoirs of a Geisha, Wolf Creek and Rumor Has It, never even aspire to be.

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In a sea of Oscar posers, this is the surprise that demands a second viewing.

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Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4


Steven Snyder welcomes feedback at snyderreviews@hotmail.com

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