The grifter movie reaches a level of unprecedented enjoyment and excitement in an absolute knockout of a feature debut by writer-director G.B. Yates. A full cinematic vision is created with a wonderful set of characters resonating long after the closing credits. Stateside pickup should be a no-brainer for solid commercial play.

The grifter movie, having had several makeovers in recent years, reaches a level of unprecedented enjoyment and excitement in “Seven Times Lucky,” an absolute knockout of a feature debut by writer-director G.B. Yates. It isn’t just that Yates’ yarn is suitably intricate, or that the filmmaking package is superbly crafted in every department, but that a full cinematic vision is created with a wonderful set of characters resonating long after the closing credits. Canuck production has pre-sold to Canadian distrib Alliance Atlantis, and Stateside pickup should be a no-brainer for solid commercial play.

Savvy casting of Kevin Pollak, as a hard-luck con man and delivery guy for mob bosses who gets in over his head, is reminiscent of “The Usual Suspects.” “Lucky,” however, is more closely tied to film noir tradition and to the grifter sub-genre, and is less self-consciously clever for its own sake than that Bryan Singer film.

Harlan (Pollak) stirs from bed to play a phone tip on a horse race — which, of course, he loses. He appears to be considerably luckier when joining forces with raven-haired Fiona (Liane Balaban), teaming up to pull clever ATM ripoffs of unsuspecting victims.

Harlan owes local boss Dutch (James Tolkan) the cash he lost on his bad bet, just as Sonny (Jonas Chernick) is in debt to Native American godfather Mr. Five Wounds (Gordon Tootoosis), who makes Sonny pay painfully for his bad behavior. Ever the hustler, Sonny sells Harlan on a grift involving some pricey watches, and volatile Sacco (Aleks Paunovic) joins them for the job.

Harlan’s life is further complicated by his delivery duties for Eddie (Babz Chula), a snazzy-looking tough gal. Eager to make her upcoming deal for a very pricey violin come off hitch-free, Eddie keeps Harlan on a short leash, suspicious of his weakness for the races and his penchant for letting cash slip through his fingers.

The way the first grift is pulled off — and then plays out in unexpected ways, with twists too numerous to detail — is well-written commercial moviemaking at its best. On a separate but affecting track is the sadly unfulfilled relationship between Harlan and Fiona, who, under different circumstances, might be a couple; here, Fiona is an even wilier and deceptive grifter than Harlan, and a lot more deceitful.

Old genre chestnuts, from false first appearances and a hero with a slim-and-none chance of survival to schemes-within-schemes, are staged with energy and attention to detail. The powerfully timed, ultra-sharp editing by Robert Lower and Brad Caslor moves the action along at a snappy clip, then manages to slow down at just the right moment for breathers and even a few glorious reveries.

While Harlan’s fate belies early expectations, it reverberates in the splendidly twisty third act and remains absolutely logical even as the mind boggles at the baits and switches.

Ultimately, its human factor is what sets “Seven Times Lucky” apart from David Mamet’s equally clever but chillier efforts and from “The Grifters,” an earlier class act in the field.

Working an astonishing amount of business into 80 minutes’ playing time, Yates invests his characters — especially Harlan and Fiona — with masterful depth and a concern for classic noir screenwriting.

This is Pollak’s best film performance by a long stretch, with some of his finest work coming when he is silently considering his fate or looking at Fiona with what seem to be lovestruck eyes. And although Balaban made an impression in Michael Almereyda’s little-seen “Happy Here and Now,” here, she achieves an unforgettable performance as Fiona, a creature of split motivations.

Support is full of characters in all senses of the term, notably the magnetic Chula and intimidating Tootoosis.

Against an unidentified, crumbling city (Winnipeg, actually) that provides as much rich character as the underworld folk, the snow-bound Christmas season — replete with composer Glenn Buhr’s ironically used Yuletide-accented soundtrack — at first seems to be laid on a bit thick, but eventually reaps wonderful emotional rewards, particularly with montages set to two marvelous, original Noel songs by Margaret Sweatman and Buhr.

Steve Cosens’ lensing may owe a lot to Edward Hopper, but his work is entirely of a piece with the rest of the film while creating astonishing pictures bathed in high-contrast, strong key lighting and lovely backlighting. Along with the expressive urban decay, Deanne Rohde’s production design plays with period, with rotary and cell phones co-existing.

Seven Times Lucky

Canada

Production

An Alliance Atlantis release (in Canada) of a Minds Eye presentation of a Buffalo Gal Pictures production. (International sales: Minds Eye Intl., Winnipeg.) Produced by Liz Jarvis, G.B. Yates. Executive producers, Bryan Gliserman, Marguerite Pigott, Phyllis Laing, Kevin DeWalt. Directed, written by G.B. Yates.

Crew

Camera (Alphacine color), Steve Cosens; editors, Robert Lower, Brad Caslor; music, Glenn Buhr; songs, Margaret Sweatman, Buhr; music supervisor, Michael Perlmutter; production designer, Deanne Rohde; art director, Ricardo Alms; set decorator, Shawna Balas; costume designer, Wanda Farian; sound (Dolby Digital), Leon Johnson; visual effects designer, Bruce Little; special effects coordinator, Alms; digital effects, Film Effects; stunt coordinators, Rick Skene, Chuck Robinson; assistant director, David Antoniuk; casting, Jon Comerford, Larissa Giroux. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema), Jan. 19, 2004. Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Harlan - Kevin Pollak Fiona - Liane Balaban Sonny - Jonas Chernick Dutch - James Tolkan Sacco - Aleks Paunovic Eddie - Babz Chula Mr. Five Wounds - Gordon Tootoosis Finch - Laura Jayne McDonald
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