Monday, 24 July 2006

Nine Queens (2000) DVD

I’m a sucker for films about grifters. They’re what you’d call conmen, but that would be calling an artist “someone who draws pictures”. Grifters are those people who trick ordinary people into giving up their money willingly. It may take something as simple as offering an old lady a “magic rock” that could cure their ailments (the preferred scheme of local conmen), or something as complex as a rare vintage stamp collection that the title of this movie refers to.

Grift movies, like heist movies, are strictly genre. They’re readily identifiable, there’s very few variations to the plot we haven’t seen before, and adhere to several unwritten but iron laws. Inevitably, a grift involves a careful set-up, where the grifter acquires the bait and the assembles the necessary accomplices, and targets a victim. There will be a seemingly random encounter, followed by the grifter introducing the victim to the bait, pitching his con on the victim (“A relative of mine is in jail, and his assets all but frozen…” or “Aunt Bernise, can’t you remember your favourite nephew?”).

That may seem like a lot of rules, but just remember this: the key to the best con jobs, the ones that bring in the big money, depend on the greed and dishonesty of the victim, and requires a team of at least 2 grifters working in concert. The details may change, the lines used may change, but there are a fixed repertory of grifts, as limited as there are types of winning poker suits, for example.

In the beginning of Nine Queens, Juan (Gaston Pauls) does something no self-respecting grifter whould do: after trying the same trick twice at the same venue. Juan is caught red-handed cheating a cashier counter girl of spare change (the $45 dollar spare change trick), a cop, conveniently hanging out at the convenience store, apprehends the young man and walks him to the neighbourhood slammer. Except the cop is just an older and more experienced grifter, Marcos (Ricardo Darin).

Marcos, whose last associate has disappeared for a while, needs a partner to pull cons with. As a gesture of an older, wiser, statesman of crime, he decides to show the ropes to Juan, just for one day. And on that one day, both grifters are presented with the one-in-a-million opportunity to pull off the big one, when a disgraced Spanish politician in exile and stamp collector arrives at the local Sheraton.

Nine Queens is far less predictable than audiences expect, because Argentinean director Fabián Bielinsky combines the genre with a fresh and perverted angle on the buddy film. Marcos, as it turns out, is somewhat of a cold and heartless operator who actually preys on his partners. He is the worst sort of partner that the guileless, inexperienced, and principled Juan can team up with. If not for the fact that Juan has a natural talent for improvisation and a face that people can trust, he would be just a coman condemned to working on small change instead of partnering Marcos on this assignment.

There is much fun in watching this movie. Bielinsky showcases a few of the classic grifts for fans of the genre. Juan’s talents at improvisation gives an unpredictable, on-the-fly feel to every grift he pulls with Marcos. And the best part is wondering when and how Marcos will fleece Juan’s share of the profits.

I particularly like the nature of the obligatory twist in Nine Queens, as well as the smart, hard-boiled script and the ensemble cast. While Fabián Bielinsky directed only two feature films before his death in June 2006, it is not difficult to see why he has been looked upon by critics as an outstanding Argentinean director. I’m told that the English translation loses some of the slangy quality of the original Spanish dialogue, but the creative energy of the director shines through the camera.

First published at incinemas on 24 July 2006

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