Judge Bill Gibron says that there's no need to gamble on whether director Dario Argento's new movie is worth your time. With this talented filmmaker, it's a sure thing.
Our review of Dario Argento: Anchor Bay Collection, published May 27th, 2008, is also available.
A single turn of the cards can decide someone's fate…forever!
It must be difficult being the best at what you do. A gifted songwriter like Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan must spend the vast majority of their life in psychological quandaries about how they can keep their muse fresh while constantly battling with the brilliance of their past. Some performers never get over it, unable to deal with the constant pressure of comparison. They end up resting on their laurels and never ever attempt to match—or top—themselves. Others press on, unfazed by the genius of their genesis, constantly striving to expand and experience their art.
This unkind evaluation is particularly tough on filmmakers. Stephen Spielberg can never live up to Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark, while Francis Ford Coppola has a Conversation and a couple of Godfathers constantly following him around. Hitchcock used to purposefully mess with his canon, switching gears frequently and frighteningly—one minute making a lush international espionage thriller, the next helming a mean little monochrome slasher flick. The key to all this critical judgment is that it is audiences and fans who create the boundaries, not the individuals creating the content. A filmmaker simply wants to work, to use his or her talent and skill to stretch the limits of their ability. It is the obsessed and the intolerant that want the same thing over and over again.
Dario Argento has lived with this creative shadow over his shoulder for the last 20 years. He is the unchallenged master of the Italian crime genre known as "giallo," and he's also responsible for two of the most amazing, mind-bending exercises in visually visceral horror every crafted—1977's Suspiria and 1980's Inferno. But instead of being allowed to experiment and deviate from his normal cinematic stylizing, Dario's devotees just want more of the same. That is why you will hear them whimpering over movies like Phenomena, Two Evil Eyes, Trauma, and The Stendhal Syndrome; each examples (at least in their mind) of where the master stumbled. The Card Player, his most recent film, has also been brandished as a disappointment, a less-than-stellar addition to what is an amazing oeuvre. The truth is far more complicated. This is not a real return to form, but it could easily mark an amazing renaissance in a career that has spanned more than 40 years.
Facts of the Case
Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca, The Talented Mr. Ripley) is a detective with the Missing Persons section of the Rome police. While investigating the disappearance of a British tourist, she gets an e-mail from someone called The Card Player, challenging her to a game of poker online. The stakes? The life of the girl she is looking for. When the cops fail to play by his rules, the killer makes good on his promise. A British forensic scientist named Jack Brennan (Liam Cunningham, Into the West) enters the case. He wants to use all the technology at the disposal of local law enforcement to track this fiend. Several more victims are found, and the police employ a college student named Remo who is incredibly lucky with cards. Through the gradual collection of clues, and the use of modern surveillance and investigative science, Mari and Brennan begin to unravel the secrets to the killer's identity. Will they catch him in time, or will more people die at the hands of The Card Player and his evil game?
The first significant thing you notice about Dario Argento's new film is the lack of a discernable style—this from the man who made his name with directorial flourishes so opulent and over-the-top that he rewrote the book on Italian gothic horror. The next thing you realize is, like Sleepless before, this is Argento returning to the giallo genre that made him famous in the early '70s. Unlike other oddball efforts, including his version of The Phantom of the Opera, or the psychosexual sickness of The Stendhal Syndrome, this is a straightforward serial killer thriller without a lick of the lyricism we've come to expect from the auteur. The final missing ingredient, one that is standard operating procedure in the Argento world, is gore. This is one of the most bloodless motion pictures the filmmaker has ever helmed. While there is a great deal of violence and dread, the viscera is kept offscreen during the entire movie.
With all those differences apparent, one might come away with the impression that The Card Player is one of the director's lesser efforts. Actually, the opposite is true. This is one of Argento's most convincing and controlled chillers. Unlike most of his output over the last 20 years, this is Argento addressing the audience directly, reminding moviegoers that no one handles the elements of the crime thriller better and more forcefully than he does. Gone are the random bits of surrealism. Gone are the strange segments of outright black comedy (except for a single sequence featuring a singing and dancing morgue attendant). Gone are the corruptions of narrative clarity and the lapses in internal logic. What we have instead is an inventive murder investigation story, accented by a skilled filmmaker's obvious flair behind the camera. This may be a first for Argento: a movie in which the narrative, not his obvious artistic sensibility or reliance on the repulsive, pulls us through the plot. Once we realize we won't be sitting around waiting for the next gruesome set piece, or mise-en-scène tour de force, our attention can be applied elsewhere.
One place in particular is the performances. In the past, Argento's films have been filled with all manner of actors—from the ham to the hampered. He manages to do well when it comes to his leads, but the ancillary cast can occasionally destroy even his best intentions. Here, however, he has a uniformly excellent company working for him. As our female detective, the splendid Stefania Rocca delivers the perfect balance between police efficiency and wounded vulnerability. You never once fear she will fall into that most derivative of thriller characters—the helpless victim. Instead, she stands strong and focused among her less forceful fellow police officers. As the metaphysical yang to her yin, Liam Cunningham is also excellent. He is the more damaged person here, the disgraced figure looking to legitimize himself through drink and arrogance. Yet he can also be weak and ineffective, and this dichotomy between Anna and John gives a nice balance at the center of the film. Then Argento fills out the ancillary roles with individuals capable of keeping us on our toes, wondering consistently if they could be the killer…or just another red herring in a long list of possible denouements.
For some, the card game itself may seem anti-climatic, and kind of inane. But the way Argento handles it, the technological coldness of the process (the cards appear and turn over in a simple, non-showy manner) actually heightens the suspense. We do feel ourselves pulled into the higher and higher stakes of the games, watching the horribly frightened eyes of the victims as they react to every deal, every reveal. The introduction of card sharp Remo may seem like an obvious attempt at stacking the deck, both figuratively and emotionally, but this is part of Argento's way. Like Hitchcock, he loves to bring the common man into his evil realms, allowing them to reap the benefits—and eventual awful rewards—of being part of the secret world of suspense. Thanks to this methodology, he drags his audience right up to the edge as well. When characters are as easy to identify with as Anna, or John, or Remo, we find ourselves immediately lost in their world and all the issues that come with it. That makes the dread more potent, and the horror more real.
Argento is still up to some of his old tricks, natural lighting and straightforward approach aside. He has always been the king of the set piece and continues his marvelously cinematic ways a couple of times in The Card Player. When Anna is terrorized by an unseen enemy in her apartment, the depth of the darkness adds to the shock and fear. In the past, Argento would have purposefully underlit the sequence, casting colored gels on certain sections to highlight the psychological or phantasmagorical elements involved. Here, he pulls a classic Wait Until Dark moment, and simply allows the moonlight to filter through the location, painting certain distinct areas with spots of visibility. He then uses an overhead camera to capture the cat and mouse.
The same type of thing happens during one of the online games. A victim escapes, and using the Web cam as his frame of reference, Argento lets the fixed point of view (and lots of sickening sounds), create a sequence of unnerving power. No one uses audio like Argento, and he ratchets up the decibels several times throughout The Card Player. Ex-Goblin Claudio Simonetti is along for the technotronic ride, the wild electronica score employed by the director really driving home the modern, contemporary feel he is striving for.
Indeed, this is Argento's entry into the 21st century, a chance to try new things and experiment with new styles. Had he made nothing but Suspiria and its clones for the last 30 years, fans would be foaming, complaining that he's a one-trick pony, stuck on the same old Goth grot for the last 30 years. True, his spotty output of late has made it seem like he lost something from his well-regarded heyday. But there is nothing about The Card Player which should make one concerned about his craft. Argento is still a very devious bugger when he wants to be: the several scenes where the cops interact with the corpses of dead girls are grisly, and filled with their own foul surprises. He also keeps the dark-gloved killer front and center in his narrative, never veering too far off into tangential subplots or ideas. When he wants to be, Argento is a master of the macabre and a skilled technician of suspense. The final confrontation on a train track is classic thriller material. Yet thanks to his particular sensibility, it turns into another amazing cinematic statement.
So forget your preconceived notions about Dario Argento and give The Card Player a chance to breathe. Though it is undoubtedly more routine than previous efforts, and uses a gimmicky device to get to the death, there is still a great deal of panache and potency in this old Italian grue meister. Indeed, this serial killer chiller far surpasses recent Hollywood attempts to deconstruct the genre, keeping the terror right where it belongs. Argento has never been a safe filmmaker. Any character in his films can die at any moment. Minor throwaway bits between actors can be the linchpin to uncovering the entire mystery. Random items can be used for both good and bad purposes (remember the demonic doll in Deep Red?), and locations belie their always obvious intent. The Card Player may not be that long-awaited final segment in the Three Mothers Trilogy, but it is an interesting and inventive exercise in dread. Suspense is a hard genre to crack, and few have found victory in its vice-like grip. Argento is a proud member of the conquering clan who've made anxiety their servant. While not a masterpiece, this is a wonderfully evocative film.
Most fans usually fret when they hear that yet another Argento film is making its way onto DVD. Not because they fear the worse cinematically, but because they realize that his is an uneven oeuvre on the digital format. For every Anchor Bay release, there are substandard Troma versions (The Stendhal Syndrome of all things…) and one horrendous Lions Gate debacle (is Sleepless STILL a full-screen only title???). Thankfully, the Bay is up to bat again, and they treat The Card Player with due respect. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is amazing—crystal clear and sharp as a well-honed dagger. The colors are vibrant and the print is pristine.
On the sound side, we are treated to two equally impressive Dolby Digital mixes. The 2.0 Stereo is nice, since it treats all elements—dialogue and dance music—with equal aplomb. But for the full Argento effect, switch over to the 5.1 version. This is the total sonic assault that Argento imagined, with blaring electronica, easily decipherable conversations, and various mood manipulators present in the ambient background. Argento is an artisan of both sound and vision, and the Anchor Bay release of The Card Player does his technical skills justice.
It also does his legacy a decent turn as well. Anchor Bay loads this DVD with all manner of added content, and each feature is an interesting insight into the man, his motives, and the way he makes movies. First up is "Playing with Death," an interview segment with Argento. The director walks us through the pre-production process on the film, what he hoped to accomplish, and all the different and divergent style changes he made to realize his designs. It is an interesting and engaging discussion. "Maestro of Fear" focuses an equally discerning eye on Claudio Simonetti, Argento's longtime musical collaborator. Like Angelo Badalamenti to David Lynch, Simonetti is an integral part of Argento's approach to cinema, and to hear him talk about his career, his time with Goblin, and his proposed projects is a real treat. Two music based EPK offerings—one called "Promo," the other entitled "Behind the Scenes"—are just collections of clips accompanied by lots of soundtrack stomp. They are curious, but cursory—as are the standard trailer and text bio for Argento.
The other essential aspect of this DVD is the full-length audio commentary by Profundo Argento author Alan Jones. Having followed this filmmaker's career for decades, Jones is a real expert on his subject. He even had a chance to visit the set during the production, so his details are exacting and based on firsthand knowledge. During the discussion, he discloses the two alternative endings for the film, the identity of the original killer, and a change in locale (the movie was originally set in Venice, not Rome). Jones also points out another first for Argento—he allowed his cast to improvise—and makes sure that non-Italians understand what a big deal it was for Argento to have megastars like Stefania Rocca, Silvio Muccino (who played Remo), and Claudio Santamaria (who played policeman Carlo) in the film. Though he tends to trail off toward the end, and spends a little too much time on background information, this is still an engaging, exciting extra, and, along with an eight-page booklet featuring a print Q&A with Argento, this is a wonderful overall digital package.
Reputation is an overwhelming ogre for most of the famous—and a few of the infamous as well. Someone who made it big, or who became larger than life, has a hard time deflating back to a sense of newness or normality. For someone like Dario Argento, a movie icon who let fans see the holy grail of horror not once, or twice, but numerous times, anything other than another instant classic seems like a purposeful punch in the stomach. They demand perfection when all he's really interested in is expanding and exploring his craft. The Card Player marks new territory and new traits for a man who has invented more than his fair share of said ideals along the way. If you come in expecting sadism and the shock, the quirky and the quixotic, you will be disappointed. But if you allow Argento to grow and expand, you'll find this a very eerie, very effective little thriller. Dario Argento is indeed the master, and The Card Player is a reminder of his undeniable skill behind the lens.
Rejoice, Argento fans. The Card Player is an excellent example of the Italian suspense genius in top form. The film and the director are therefore found not guilty and are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Playing with Death: New Interview Featurette with Director Dario Argento
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