Nine Queens

May 1, 2002 at 12:00 am

Argentinian writer-director Fabian Bielinsky’s feature debut is the story of two con men, an old pro and a young beginner, who hook up for a day and seemingly stumble on the score of a lifetime. “Seemingly,” of course, is the key word here, since this is the kind of movie that begs to be second-guessed. You just know that some crucial character isn’t who he or she seems to be — and as the plot twists cause the winds of fortune to shift, so do your suspicions.

In a caper movie, ironic twists are acts of fate; in a movie about an elaborate con, somebody all-too-human is pulling the strings. You know this going in and so you adjust to a two-layered type of watching, following the story that’s being presented while digging for hints as to the nature of the underlying puzzle and its possible solution. In the end, you’re either pleasantly surprised or mildly disappointed, depending on how well you’ve been suckered.

Juan (Gaston Pauls) is a young con blessed with an innocent face who we first see doing a change-making scam (similar to the one that John Cusack worked in The Grifters) at a gas station. He pulls it off neatly, but before he leaves notices that the cashier is going off-duty and decides to run the same trick past her replacement. This proves to be a big (and dumb) mistake, since the first cashier unexpectedly returns and busts him.

But before the manager can call the police, a plainclothes cop appears, complete with gun in belt and proper ID, and whisks Juan and the money (evidence) away. This turns out to be Marcus (Ricardo Darin), a fellow confidence man not normally given to such altruistic gestures as rescuing somebody from a botched scam, but who just happens to be looking for a partner — even, apparently, one as reckless and inexperienced as Juan.

Right away we smell a rat. This meeting is too convenient. But let’s put that thought on hold. At first, Marcus seems content to show Juan a few of his favorite scams and we’re content to watch. A good con is aesthetically pleasing, a minidrama whose plot twist is kept secret from its main player and whose cleverness somewhat obscures the fact that somebody is being robbed. But a con man doesn’t take people’s money or possessions by force or physical coercion; he either convinces them that it would be a good idea to hand the goods over or confuses them so that they don’t realize they’re doing it. The con himself has a well-developed appreciation of his own persuasive talents and a running joke in the movie is carried along as yet another shady character bristles at the intimation that he may be merely a “crook” or a “thief.”

The plot quickly thickens once Marcus is summoned to a hotel by an old acquaintance who’s had a heart attack just before he could pull a major scam involving the selling of some fake German stamps, called the Nine Queens, to a rich industrialist. Here the “it just so happens” pile up.

The industrialist is being deported the next day, so the deal has to go down immediately. The stamps are worth a few hundred thousand dollars, at least. Marcus’ sister, who hates him because she knows he cheated her out of some family inheritance, works in the hotel (oh, c’mon now). There’s much more, but one wants to hold back on the details because the fun of watching the movie is the way that each barely believable turn seems to point to a different possible mastermind.

This is close to Mamet territory, though Mamet is more interested in the cruelties of the scam, the way surreptitiously gained power over a victim feeds into macho ruthlessness. For him it’s a Darwinian sport, full of metaphors about everyday power plays. But Bielinsky is more purely an entertainer, using misdirection and teasing our intelligence. And as someone who guessed who Keyser Soze was about a third of the way into The Usual Suspects and the twist of The Sixth Sense after the first 20 minutes or so (and I have witnesses), I have to give Bielinsky credit for outfoxing me.

The guy has the knack and he scammed me good.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].