ROUNDERS (John Dahl, 1998)

I haven’t seen Red Rock West (1993) or Unforgettable (1996), but The Last Seduction (1994) is depressive and contemptuous of its audience. Still, a beguiling Rounders may owe something to director John Dahl. Certainly the film is beautifully written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, elegantly lensed in sometimes noirish colors by Jean Yves Escoffier, and magnificently acted by Martin Landau.

His, the most resonant character, is fleshed to the bone—Abe Petrovsky, an aging New York law professor lugging baggage: the irreversible estrangement dictated by a father, now deceased, who expected him to become a rabbi—for generations, the family’s anointed role for sons. What happened with Abe? His parents had moved from Israel to the States, weakening the link of patriarchic devotion and strengthening the secular character of their son’s heritage. The boy was not rebellious. He commenced his Talmudic studies on schedule but just couldn’t find, or feel, God. Though he dropped out of the yeshiva, he didn’t automatically drop into law; rather than a calling he answered, secular law was the destiny he was driven to. When a student of his, at a similar crossroads, asks Abe if he would make the same choices again, Abe replies, “What choice?” And the suggestive way Landau enacts the encounter in a bar leaves no doubt that, for all his confessional hush, Abe has played out this exchange before, and will do so again, drawing here and there yet another tottering law student into his ritual of remorse, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner endlessly repeating his personal history, in his case in a hopeless attempt to expiate what (even to another set of his own eyes) was never a sin, only the course of his life that elected him to follow it. Exacerbating this haunted man’s drama is the Holocaust; to ancestral eyes, which he has interiorized, Abe has rejected his responsibility as a surviving Jew to contribute wholeheartedly to the continuation of his faith. In Crimes and Misdeameanors (1989), Woody Allen, bless him, first cast Landau in a moral drama touching on the complexity of this theme, drawing from the actor a fine performance; but, as Abe Petrovsky, Landau surpasses himself, as though driven to declare from the depths of his own soul his right to express his Jewishness even as an actor and not necessarily through religious leadership. If Landau earned his Oscar for his poignant Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994), he earns it a couple of times over for the more powerful work that he does here.

But the protagonist of the film is Mike, whose immersion in an underground world of illegal high-stakes poker adds to its risk an echo of his law professor’s suggestion of an imperiled people. Inspired by the confession Petrovsky makes to him, Mike drops out of law school to pursue the adventure of this risk, by going his own way becoming, in effect, Petrovsky’s extension. (The film slyly enforces this connection by not providing their obligatory surrogate father-son farewell scene.)

However, Petrovsky is mirrored also, darkly, by another character in the film: the demented, infantile, mob-connected “KGB,” to whom Mike becomes mortally obligated when he foolishly vouches for the debt of a dissolute, irresponsible friend. Gambling Mike’s ambition is to roll up a stake and take off for Las Vegas, to flee retribution from KGB, but most of all to test himself against the best poker players, in a world championship; once struggling to keep afloat, now he must struggle to stay unbroken and alive. What a wonderful final shot this film gives us: cars moving forward at eerily identical speeds, Mike’s Vegas-bound one among them, the occupant(s) of each—like Abe to law—magnetically drawn to whatever, wherever. Here is a suspenseful glimpse of destiny revealing either uncertain hope and possibility or impending ruin, even mass doom—an image of the Holocaust. This dead-on thematic summation taps into the agonized, suspended mood of the highway long shots in David Cronenberg’s terrific Crash (1996).

Indeed, a problem with Rounders is that it recalls so many other films, including a bottom-of-the-barrel The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961). Besides substituting cards for pool, Rounders at least gets rid of the earlier film’s reductive allegory, lousy dialogue and dank expressionism. All this makes it even more like The Cincinnati Kid (Norman Jewison, 1965)—the cause of enough embarrassment that a passing remark in Rounders even acknowledges the resemblance.

The acting varies. Landau, I’ve said enough about. As Mike’s buddy, Edward Norton is never off-pitch with his single note; but he has nothing like Robert De Niro’s force in a similar role in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). Indeed, Norton has dashed hopes for his gifts so many times since his electrifying appearance in Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit, 1996) that it’s time to declare a moratorium on praising his acting. (Question: In Levien and Koppelman’s original script, were the two boys, as here, Irish Catholics?) John Turturro is adequate in another of his smarmy roles, but John Malkovich lacks convincing menace as KGB. Finally, the Diana Scarwid of her day, Gretchen Mol is a total wash-out as Mike’s studious, sanctimonious girlfriend.

And Matt Damon, who plays Mike? Those who have patiently waited for Damon to fulfill the promise of his fine acting in Walter Hill’s splendid Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), take heart. As Rounders led up to its tense point of climax, where KGB baits Mike into a life-and-death match, I mused: “I know what Mike’s about to do, but I won’t believe it. For the movie to keep going, Mike must do this, so I’ll go along with it. But I won’t believe it.”

Mike indeed commits the anticipated act; and, with his back to the camera, no less, the exquisitely timed way Damon enacts this pivotal moment, you believe it.

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One thought on “ROUNDERS (John Dahl, 1998)

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