David Gordon Green
Stars: Al Pacino, Holly Hunter
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Manglehorn” is a character study in the purest sense of the word. It’s almost reductio ad absurdum about it. About the only thing it does is actually study a character. It’s so focused on following a single person — namely A.J. Manglehorn (Al Pacino), a locksmith tucked away in a particularly remote and gangly part of Texas — that it barely has a story, or even a character arc. The script would drive screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee mad, and as an audiene member it can ultimately seem maddeningly slight. Manglehorn is so set in his ways, so used to the albeit depressing existence he think he deserves, that he’s not about to change his ways. The film around him too is stubborn; it creates a world and then just wallows in it. It’s the movie equivalent of a still-life.

It’s a good world, though, and its director, David Gordon Green, knows how to make it vivid. The majority of it is essentially a series of montages, as though movements in a symphony done in a minor key. Manglehorn — a great name for late-period Pacino to wrap his gravel voice around — spends much of the film reading aloud, in “Carlito’s Way”-era twangy sing-song, from letters he writes to The One Who Got Away, who in fact got away a few decades past. She’s never written him back and Manglehorn has never let a day, or a moment, go by without thinking of her. He’s a man of habit, spending his days either in his dank, rotted place of business or in his cavernous, trash-strewn home. 

There’s a couple characters who float in and out of the narrative, though Manglehorn prefers to talk to his cat. The cat gets sick right around the time he starts spending more time with two different people, in both cases attempts for him to break out of his shell that will almost certainly not take. One temptation is Dawn (Holly Hunter), an agreeable, lightly optimistic bank teller with whom Manglehorn enjoys a ritualistic flirtation. The other, less positive option is Gary, played by the filmmaker Harmony Korine. That casting should tell you everything, but Gary is, as you may expect, a motormouth saloon owner and general reprobate who calls Manglehorn “coach.” Once upon a time Gary was on his Little League team; now he tries to get the old man laid. 

Scenes of the guy who made “Spring Breakers” bro-ing around with the guy from “Panic in Needle Park” are something, especially with Pacino acting only slightly less out of it than he was in “The Humbling.” This is the latest in a stealth, indie comeback for the of late floundering legend, also including a game turn in “Danny Collins.” Pacino has never made a movie loose in the way “Manglehorn” is, and it’s a fine showcase for an actor who’s aged in a strange and wonderful way — an exhausted, wrinkly gargoyle whose voice moves for no one. 

As such “Manglehorn” is as much about capturing Pacino right now as it is about a senior citizen eroded by a lifetime of regrets. Green, the sometime-director of broad weed comedies like “Pineapple Express” and “You Highness,” is still grooving on being back in small-time indie mode a la “Prince Avalanche” and “Joe.” Despite an actual screenplay credit, Green clearly shot “Manglehorn” on the fly and found it in post, and it’s a busy film that, like its hero, nonetheless goes in circles, threatening to break away but always winding back on track. Its script can seem small, even predictable, but it’s best just to give in and enjoy the film’s simple pleasures, which, of course, aren’t simple at all but uncommonly rare: an adventurous director bumming around a visually striking location with one of movies’ most fascinating stars at his saddest.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge