House of Cards

Wouldn't it be easier to incorporate a major power-trading firm in Houston? Hardworking Argentine con men Ricardo Darín and Gastón Pauls in 'Nine Queens'
Sony Pictures Classics

There's one sequence in the excellent new caper film Nine Queens that helps to explain the movie's immense popularity in its native Argentina. The two main characters, small-time con men on the verge of a major score, stand on a Buenos Aires street corner and survey the variegated venality around them--purse-snatchers, pickpockets, petty swindlers, smash-and-grab artists. "They are there, but you can't see them," the older thief, Marcos, tells Juan, the younger partner he's taken under his wing for the day. "They are there, but they aren't. So mind your briefcase, your case, your door, your window, your car, your savings. Mind your ass."

Marcos's warning must ring true to Argentine audiences: He's giving voice to the country's depressed, paranoid mood. What are those skulking predators, after all, if not sublime practitioners of the same savage neoliberalism that precipitated Argentina's spectacular financial collapse?

Nimbly paced and cleverly structured though it may be, Nine Queens might have been a fairly weightless entertainment if external circumstances hadn't lent it a sense of gravity. Granted, only one scene refers explicitly to the economic shell game that has led to the virtual paralysis of Argentina's banking system, a 65 percent devaluation of its currency, and a partial default on its $145 billion debt. Still, it seems significant that Nine Queens is largely set in a gleaming, nearly empty, international luxury hotel; that Marcos and Juan are trying to bilk a greedy foreign investor; and that there's running doubt as to whether the film's MacGuffin--the set of Weimar-era German stamps that gives the movie its title--is more valuable than the paper it's printed on (unlike, say, the Argentine peso). Indeed, it's tempting to read Nine Queens as a sly indictment of pure market capitalism, for which Argentina has long served as the canary in the Latin American coal mine. The film's labyrinthine scam might just be a petty grifter's variation on the long con that Argentina's moneyed class has been running for decades. Marcos and Juan aren't unique because they're crooked; they just haven't been thinking big enough.

It's central to writer/director Fabian Bielinsky's acidly comic sensibility that his characters never recognize just how small-time they really are. When we first see them, Juan, played by the bed-headed Gaston Pauls, is pulling a change-making scam in a convenience store. The fact that the trick is lifted wholesale from Paper Moon suggests that Bielinsky's interest in petty larceny isn't just academic. But he's also making a joke: Juan's imagination is so limited that even his hustles are pilfered from old Hollywood movies. Later, when the pair tries to fleece a helpless old woman out of her legacy, she takes them to the cleaners. In this pervasively corrupt Argentina, even the marks are sharper than the sharpers.

Marcos, in particular, has delusions of his own cleverness. When Juan compares him to the common criminal rabble on the street, Marcos feigns offense: "You think I'm a thief? I don't kill people. I don't use a piece. Anyone can do that." Still, he's not devoid of charm. Wearing a dark suit and a smart little goatee, Jeff Goldblum doppelgänger Ricardo Darin gives him a kick of Mephistophelean suavity.

Viewing himself as a wolf among the sheep, a natural culler of the herd, Marcos approaches his marks with arrogant boldness. At one point, when a waiter serves him indifferently, he takes revenge by robbing the man in the most humiliating manner possible. Later, he explains his philosophy to Juan: "That's the point. They're not prepared for a scandal. The more offended you are, the less suspicious you look. When things get tough, you just accuse the rest of them." Again, this rather sounds like Argentine fiscal policy as applied to petty crime.

By contrast, the less experienced, sad-eyed Juan seems to have a kind of provisional ethical code. He isn't a criminal by choice, we learn. He merely needs quick cash to save his imprisoned father from a corrupt judge. He's even uncomfortable stealing from old ladies. Yet he rises to the occasion with disconcerting brio. When Marcos, playing the malevolent mentor, challenges him to steal a random woman's purse, the younger thief can't resist. Marcos and Juan are equally symptomatic of Argentina's current condition: They're both seduced by easy money; they both love the thrill of a well-played con; and they'll both settle for low returns.

There's much more to Nine Queens than a character study of hoods, but to the film's credit it doesn't give away its sleight of hand too quickly. Bielinsky, a commercial director who actually won a contest to direct this, his first feature, has clearly done his homework. Along with Paper Moon, Nine Queens pays brisk homage to a half-dozen other classic con movies, from The Sting to House of Games. Indeed, Bielinsky's film is particularly redolent of David Mamet (you keep expecting Ricky Jay to pop up in a cameo). Like Mamet, Bielinsky seems attracted to the denizens of the criminal underworld because they magnify his theme: namely, that the confidence game is a kind of capitalist interaction--and vice versa.

At the same time, there's a hint of ranker and more pervasive corruption behind Nine Queens' rakish façade--the kind of shrugging pessimism that only a true national collapse could engender. You might catch a whiff of it when Marcos surveys that busy Buenos Aires street corner: In the new Argentina, everyone has a lean and hungry look.

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