What's most surprising about Nine Queens, a wry if awfully derivative caper come-on from first-time feature director-writer Fabián Bielinsky, is how easily it suckers you into its swindle. After all, you know from jump that something's up. You've sniffed out this con before in the films of David Mamet and the novels of Jim Thompson, where no one is who he or she seems and nothing is done without dual purpose. You're no simp to get taken again. And yet, here it is another double-cross for which you will, and should, hand over your few grubby bucks.
Perhaps that's because Bielinsky, an Argentinean, is in no hurry to play out his deception. Nine Queens takes its time, enjoying the game like an expert too wise (or, maybe, afraid) to tip his hand too soon. It relaxes and revels in the small lies, the taking of chump change here and there, before at long last offering up the bigger score in this case, rare German stamps known as the "Nine Queens," said to be worth millions by those offering pennies on the dollar for them. The stamps are Bielinsky's thing, his statute or his briefcase filled with the shimmering whatever the audience never sees. For chrissakes, they're just postage stamps, but they're worth a heap of betrayal dished out by strangers, friends and family alike. Everyone's screwing someone here, but the questions, as always, remain the same: Who? And for how much? (If nothing else, we get the why we always do, even if it's just because.)
It begins in a convenience store, where a young man named Juan (Gastón Pauls) is faking change from the woman behind the counter. He's a novice (or so it seems) with a kind face perfect for scamming, since no one sees him coming even when he's in front of them but prone to mistakes. He tries to double-dip and gets caught by a cop (or so it seems). But the cop is another grifter, a grizzled vet named Marcos (Ricardo Darín) who is shoplifting for kicks, and offers the kid a deal: Marcos needs a partner, and if Juan will pair up just for the day, they'll split the profits 50-50. Or so it seems.
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For a while, Bielinsky's content to play it out like a low-key Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Juan plays fall guy to consummate a scam, while Marcos lectures him about the difference between petty thieves and pro swindlers and how it's impossible to have a conscience in the con game. The director revels in the details, the little jokes that give the film a certain veracity it has the air of a laconic, unforced documentary in spots. In one scene, Marcos finds himself engaged in a long, drawn-out discussion with a woman over an apartment intercom; he's just trying to sneak into the building, but she believes him to be her nephew, and theirs becomes an intimate conversation between family members. He's so at ease with the ruse he becomes the character which appears to appall Juan, who wants nothing to do with ripping off a helpless old lady.
Before long, the two men are confronted with a "once in a million" opportunity: One of Marcos' old, estranged partners, Sandler (Óscar Núñez), is ailing and in desperate need of assistance in moving the Nine Queens in the next 24 hours before his prospective buyer, Gandolfo (Ignasi Abadal), leaves town and before Gandolfo discovers they're little more than forgeries. If Marcos will help, Sandler says, he can keep 10 percent of the take a figure Marcos ups to 90, since he's the one assuming all the risk. "You came to me," Marcos snarls through facial hair that looks to have been glued on.
And so begins a game of cat and mouse, with no animal distinguishable from another: Is Juan really a naif easily taken? Is Marcos' sister Valeria (Leticia Brédice), a hotel concierge in high heels, really so cold-blooded she'd sleep with a man to get cash for someone else? And is Marcos really helping out an old pal, or is he up to something entirely different? They're questions that skitter through your mind when you're watching Nine Queens (or any film of its ilk). After all, we walk in knowing what's seen is not to be believed.
Bielinsky's actors are game, seeing as how they're playing actors of a different stripe. Were this an American film, Marcos would have been played by George Clooney, while Juan might have been Matt Damon or Edward Norton. (The resemblances, at times, are remarkable.) And unlike Mamet, who likes to give a gravity to his con games that too often sinks them altogether, Bielinsky's just taking a piss. After all, that's what these movies mean to do: manipulate you, trick you, take your money and leave you with little more than a what-the-fuh grin.