Chris Eigeman’s highly accomplished writing-directing debut, “Turn the River,” is a meller/thriller about a poker-playing pool hustler trying to score enough money to run away with the son she was forced to abandon at birth. Down-and-dirty character study seems a stretch for Eigeman, who, as an actor, practically patented rich and smug, and a curious starring-role choice for elegant Famke Janssen. But atmospheric pic positively vibrates with authenticity, and Janssen’s intense, febrile perf earned a special jury prize at the Hamptons fest, where pic also garnered screenwriting laurels. Taut femme “sports noir“ could build an enthusiastic indie following.
Hanging out with the guys in a small town in upstate New York, Kailey (Janssen) ekes out a living playing poker, periodically driving into Gotham to hustle pool games and check up on her gruffly protective mentor, Quinn (a wonderfully world-weary Rip Torn), who runs a hardcore hall.
Quinn also serves as a mail drop for Kailey’s secret correspondence with 11-year-old son Gulley (Jaymie Dornan), their exchanged letters unbeknownst to Kailey’s rich, mama’s-boy former husband (Matt Ross). Kailey is determined to wrest her son from the toxic clutches of her alcoholic ex-hubby and his domineering mother (Lois Smith, in fine, steely form). Kailey’s quest to raise $50,000 for fake passports that will allow them to head to Canada provides the impetus for the bulk of the film.
In casting a woman in a traditionally male role, Eigeman subtly shifts both genre and gender. His heroine adopts the iconography of the hustler movie, but feminizes it: The image of a woman camping out on a pool table reads less as rugged than vulnerable. When Kailey gets beaten up, it’s not for being a hustler but for being a woman, as male rage explodes on the barest pretext.
On the domestic sudser side, even at her most radiantly maternal, Kailey’s mannerisms have a somewhat masculine directness as she instantly drops to her knees to welcome her enthusiastically running son, or brusquely engages him in escape mode. Janssen’s Kailey exudes a survivalist energy and wrong-side-of-the-tracks physicality quite distinct from the fetishized superheroine the actress embodies in the “X-Men” movies.
Janssen effortlessly carries “Turn the River,” interacting with barmaids and waitresses and scoping out poker bluffs and pool marks. But unlike alpha-male hustler films (like “The Color of Money”), there is little virtuoso shot-making on display. Instead, Kailey relies on Quinn to gauge potential opponents based on her talent. Sometimes strung-out, brittle and rash, and sometimes vibrant, confident and in control, her game mirrors her ability to cope with an environment that reveals itself as alternately feral and protective.
Tech credits are aces. Hernan Michael Otano’s lensing ups the contrast between Kailey’s naturally nocturnal environment and a daylight so unforgiving it actually makes her vomit from sheer stress.