Perhaps I’ve seen too many movies about con artists. That’s the only reason I can figure as to why I was only lukewarm towards the 2000 Argentine film Nine Queens. It’s a perfectly well-made heist film about a pair of con men trying to pull off the big score, but it was hard for me to say that it was any better than a bunch of films in that genre that I already love.
Juan (Gaston Pauls) is a small-time con who opens the film in a convenience store, running the change-raising gag that you may remember from Paper Moon. When he gets greedy and tries to hit that same store a second time, he needs to be bailed out by the more experienced con Marcos (Ricardo Darin, from the 2009 Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes). Marcos has a big score that he can only execute with the help of a partner; the problem is that Juan, knowing how the con works, doesn’t trust him in the least.
Nine Queens is every bit as blunt and blisteringly profane as David Mamet’s House of Games – and even more so if you’re fluent in Spanish, according to one Movie Klubber – but also like House of Games it makes nearly no effort to distinguish itself visually. The camera is in the right spot, good actors say their lines, and that’s it; just one of many ways that this film resembles House Of Games and many other parts of Mamet’s filmography.
As with most con movies, the “good actors” section of that last paragraph is most important by far. Con artistry is a performance business – see also The Sting – so the con movie is all about performance. Darin is more than up to the task, and if you’ve seen The Secret in Their Eyes then you already knew that. (if you haven’t seen The Secret in Their Eyes, you should rectify that right away.) He’s a great master of underplaying; one of the big character aspects of Marcos is that he feels he has to be a bad person in order to succeed at his job, but Darin never goes too far over the top in playing “bad person.”
That character point – Marcos living by the code that ruthless self-interest is the only way he can succeed – turns out to be much more important to Nine Queens than one might think at first. Other characters are constantly telling Marcos, “I’m not a crook,” which he typically answers with silence or a change of subject. This can be interpreted a few different ways. At first it seems that Marcos thinks they’re deluding themselves, that anybody who he would do business with is by definition a crook. As the twists pile up later on, the seed is planted that perhaps Marcos actually is a higher level of crook than everyone else here.
My biggest problem with this film is that it takes awhile to really get cooking. I actually fell asleep for about 15 minutes early on, and it’s not until well after the halfway mark that we realize how much is at stake for Juan and Marcos. In fact, you could argue that we don’t find out how much was really at stake for Marcos until the movie’s final shot, but to go further on that issue would involve major spoilers. The point is, this film is eventually engrossing, but it takes its own sweet time to get to that level – as opposed to House of Games, which uses a creepy psychotherapy session to hook us early on.
I liked thinking about the final scene of this film and its implications long after this film was over, but there was not much else to distinguish it from my other favorite heist films. Perhaps there would have been, if my Spanish were less rudimentary or if House of Games weren’t so infinitely re-watchable for me. Perhaps then I would have loved this movie, instead of merely liking it.
Reviewed by Mark Young