David Mamet might kill for a script as good as the one that fuels “Nine Queens.” A seductively structured and superbly acted suspenser that breathtakingly piles swindle upon scam without giving away the game until the very end, Fabien Bielinsky’s debut feature has been the biggest smash in its native Argentina in at least a decade. With a strong push from Sony Classics, there is no reason this utterly accessible genre-and-character piece shouldn’t become a must-see for the “Memento” and “Amores Perros” constituencies Stateside.
Longtime assistant director Bielinsky got the chance to make his film when he bested 350 competitors in a screenplay competition for which the top prize was production funding for the winning script. It is the scenario that gives this thoroughly assured work its greatest distinction, but in every respect Bielinsky reveals the instincts of a filmmaker keen to please through clever dramatic manipulation that respects, rather than insults, the audience’s intelligence.
Story starts very small and gradually builds, over the course of the first act, to a sweaty-palms deception that subsequently looks like child’s play compared with what comes gyrating along thereafter. Appalled by the mistakes he notices a young fellow making during a two-bit convenience store hustle, experienced con man Marcos (Ricardo Darin) takes rookie Juan (Gaston Pauls) under his wing for a day to teach him a few tricks of the trade.
While very skillful, Marcos is also somewhat pathetic due to how low he aims; one imagines he’s been pulling the same little stunts for years, with only pocket change to show for it. But he’s also, in his own way, a snob and, in the course of a marvelous montage, he stresses his superiority to the lowlife muggers, killers and druggies that litter the city streets.
The more reserved Juan doesn’t seem like a natural-born criminal, even though he claims that his now-jailed father taught him the ropes from the earliest age. He tags along with his savvy new mentor only reluctantly, although eventually reveals a motive he has for making a big score.
Such an opportunity presents itself when Marcos stumbles into a chance to fence the Nine Queens, a famous sheet of nine defectively printed stamps from Weimar Germany. More specifically, what Marcos can peddle are expert forgeries of the set, and he finds his perfect sucker in Gandolfo (Ignasi Abadal), a wealthy businessman and stamp collector; because he’s to be extradited to Venezuela the next day, Gandolfo will have no time to submit the forgeries to expert analysis and will probably jump at the chance to take the Queens with him.
The sale, which takes place in a gleaming hotel where Marcos’ foxy, angry sister Valeria (Leticia Bredice) works, is tense but comes off even better than Marcos hoped for. It’s immediately thereafter, an hour into the film, when Bielinsky throws his first roundhouse curve, one that puts Marcos and Juan, as well as the film, into overdrive.
New circumstances push the desperate partners to extreme measures, particularly in regard to an outrageous request Marcos must make of Valeria, who hates her brother for having cheated her and their younger brother out of their inheritance. Argentina’s economic woes are ever drawn neatly into the drama before the final card is played.
Ingenious though they are, the plot mechanics wouldn’t be as effective were they not fleshed out by the outstanding characterizations, particularly that of Darin as Marcos. Seemingly smart enough to pull off any con he’d like, he comes off as a hair too seedy for the big time; he’s the schoolyard bad boy who’s still pulling the same little pranks 20 years later, and it’s beginning to look a little tired. Darin has just enough — but not too much — charisma to rivet the attention, plus the energy and quicksilver ability to improvise and turn on a dime when required.
Juan is a more callow and recessive role by nature, but Pauls quietly maintains interest in him until he begins making some surprise moves of his own later on. Properly making their characters impossible to read, Bredice and Abadal are memorable, while several smaller supporting roles are filled in classically showy and authoritative manner.
Rather than working in a fashionably flashy, show-offy mode, Bielinsky shoots in an efficient, practical style, getting full value out of the script and thesps without adding much on the visual side. Camerawork is proficient but nothing out of the ordinary, and more excitement could perhaps have been generated by a zingier music track.