"I'm not a crook."
Nine Queens is really, really good. You should see it, twice. (Sigh! I suppose you want more information…read on!)
Facts of the Case
A grifter (Juan, played by Gastòn Pauls) pulls the tried and true "change for a hundred" scam in a gas station convenience store. Well and good, but when he tries to pull it again after the shift change, he is caught. Fortunately, a more experienced con man (Marcos, Ricardo Darìn) bluffs the way to freedom for Juan.
This happenstance begins a turbulent relationship where Marcos takes Juan under his wing. Ever suspicious, Juan runs himself ragged trying to avoid being swindled by the older con. Marcos is equally frustrated by Juan's naïve morality in a world of crooks. The two are about to part ways when the con of a lifetime falls into their laps. Neither trust each other, but they need each other to make it work. Can Juan's intuition and skill help him avoid being fleeced? Will Marco's dominant will keep the scam alive despite constant setbacks?
If that isn't enough, what will happen when Marcos discovers the scam depends on the cooperation of his estranged sister, Valeria (Leticia Brèdice)? She manages the lobby of the hotel where their mark is staying. Valeria is none to fond of Marcos and will call the police at the slightest provocation.
In art school I had little money. On one occasion I produced an elegant painting on a small, affordable canvas. Others were doing impressive spectacles of paint on ceiling high canvases. My art teacher looked over them all, and pronounced mine "a gem." It fit the space, it was right. Nine Queens gives the same feeling, like discovering a gem overlooked by others. (That isn't true, of course: Nine Queens has won international acclaim.) The elements are not spectacular or splashy, they just fit.
The good times start right away. The first shot is an extreme close-up of a cigarette butt lighting a new cigarette. The camera exquisitely captures the red glow of burning paper and tobacco. The soundstage comes alive at the same moment, with all five speakers emitting a nuanced cacophony of street noise. If you've spent any time in large cities, you know that the noise is a constant, a source of fatigue for those unaccustomed. Nine Queens does not relent: the soundstage, though subtle, is always true to the street it depicts. When we are given respite from the street noise, it feels uncomfortable. This discomfort gives an edge to the interior scenes. We feel exposed, like awkward strangers.
The struggles of one-upmanship between the main characters begin immediately. Juan sizes Marcos up before his cash register escapade. Marcos studiously avoids eye contact while intently honing in. Jousting and uneasy truce are integral to their relationship. We do not know Marcos but through Juan's eyes, and we don't know Juan but through Marcos' eyes. When Valeria is later introduced, the same intensity of cat and mouse exists. It is this interpersonal unease that drives Nine Queens. Everyone has an agenda, no one is trustworthy. But for them to survive, the characters need things from each other. The viewer strives to make sense of each player's motivations while trying to uncover the real scam.
Nine Queens is a heist film in the tradition of The Sting, The Usual Suspects, and House of Games. Like most heist films, it contains a big score with some risk involved. The players neither like nor trust each other, but make a show of doing both. And of course, the whole plot turns on a dime, usually with a big twist at the end. In that sense, Nine Queens offers nothing new. What is remarkable is the authenticity of the piece. The men live and breathe the art of the con. They are always filtering, twisting, distorting. These men could be on the street right now, bilking old ladies out of their money. Some actors lack the spit-shined grime and charismatic greasiness to convince us they are street rats, but these two pull it off. Furthermore, the con itself is believable. No fist-sized diamonds, perfect art forgeries, or trillion-dollar statues here. The whole scheme is palpable enough to seem real. Nine Queens is true to the spirit of the con as a way of life. It isn't very flashy. There are no cleverly coordinated maneuvers, intricate laser-beam calisthenics, or souped-up technology. Just two men with a hastily constructed plan that must be amended on the go.
The personal issues of trust and dishonor are echoed in the greater context of law and society. The Buenos Aires, Argentina setting is used to layer the events with socio-political meaning. Everyone is a potential crook, which is hard to pull off without seeming bitterly jaded. The economic system is one step from the brink. Everyone is on edge, the mood thoroughly despondent.
The best aspect of Nine Queens is the characterization. Gastòn Pauls gives Juan just the right mixture of dopey and cunning. He pouts and sulks, but achieves moments of inspired brilliance. Ricardo Darìn is uncannily convincing: sharp, menacing, and thoroughly corrupt. His piercing eyes convey considered emotion without giving anything away. As the plot moves forward, we see more and more evidence of his bleak depravity. He is unredeemable, but we want to pull for him anyway. Leticia Brèdice rounds out the trio, with fire and frustration that seems genuine. But when she plays her part in the caper, it makes you really think…have you been fooled?
The visual feel is exotic and gritty. The image is clean enough. What makes the visuals work is the realistic palette and the great care in composition. Nine Queens isn't a spectacle of effects, just solid camerawork. The low budget is easily perceived, but the film does not lack.
The direction is sure and considered. There is no indecision: the actors play every scene with confidence and the shots are appropriate. The fundamental craft of filmmaking is admirably displayed by first time director Fabiàn Bielinsky.
Nine Queens maintains a rhythmic spiral of interest, but the real treat comes after the credits roll. The twist fundamentally changes how you perceive everyone, but it plays by the rules. The real surprise is that one of the characters is exactly who you thought all along, which is even neater. You think about Nine Queens afterward, having "a-ha!" moments long after it is over.
A second viewing is perhaps more rewarding. The knowledge you gain about the characters makes their interactions more fascinating. Also, you will pick up on clever clues that were in plain sight all along.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Verbal sparks are lost in the translation. Nine Queens is heavy on creative slang and wordplay that English speakers are not privy to, therefore the humor is perceived rather than experienced. Spanish speakers will get more out of the film.
Some of the scenes seem to invalidate the final reality of the characters. For instance, Juan's visit of his father in jail. This scene seems to go against Juan's personae. The true meaning is dark if you think about it.
What I call firm adherence to the genre, others may find derivative. Genre films are trapped, in a way. If you want a truly original movie, this may not satisfy you.
There are no extras to speak of. If the film is good enough to translate and import into America, why can't they throw in an extra or two?
You know what you're going to get with heist films. Nine Queens does not disappoint. Throw in a hefty dose of realism, great acting, a truly psychological plot, and effective social commentary…you have a winner. It is particularly impressive given the shoestring budget and the directorial debut.
On the count of being a flim-flam artist, the court finds Fabiàn Bielinsky not guilty. The court cannot wait to see more from this director. Actors Leticia Brèdice, Gastòn Pauls, and Ricardo Darìn are granted full pardons. Your cinematic mischief is fascinating!
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