Nine Queens

Nueve Reinas

If they're looking down on you, then you know you're fucked

(Spanish title Nueve Reinas)

dir: Fabian Bielinsky

Of all the films about grifters, con artists, and other tricksters trying to separate honest and dishonest folk from their hard-earned cash, Nine Queens ranks as one of my favourites, my absolute favourites.

Films about scams are amongst the most enjoyable and disposable of films. They’re enjoyable because the wool being pulled over the eyes of characters onscreen is often also being pulled over our eyes as well. And it can be enjoyable or aggravating, but I usually find it interesting.

But once you know the score, what the scam is and its end result, watching them again is often fruitless. And since they tend to be about energy and momentum, there isn’t the level of characterisation or narrative depth that might bring you back a second time. Nine Queens is a bit better than that.

Coming from Argentina at the time that it did, Nine Queens put a unique spin on the grifter genre by having the machinations of the plot, the morality of its characters and the climax be dependent upon real-life situations in the country, which faced financial collapse and economic ruin at the time. All of the Argentinean films I’ve seen since then have also had the nation’s economic woes front and centre in their plots (the documentary The Take, Live-In Maid).

It is a topic that weighs heavily on the creative mind, it seems, in that unique country. Margaret Thatcher clearly still has a lot to answer for.

Nine Queens is, ultimately, about the greed that compels those who operate on either side of the legal fence to risk everything they have for more. A unique opportunity presents itself to two con artists who cannot stop themselves from embarking on the course they have begun, because their desire for The Big Score trumps all other considerations. It’s also about whether there is, in the end, honour amongst thieves.

It’s not a complex point. But the film’s many convolutions and contortions just go to show that even the most ruthless are at the mercy of forces greater than themselves.

Marcos (Ricardo Darín), an old pro, observes Juan (Gaston Pauls) about to get nabbed for trying to scam a convenience store clerk. He saves the younger guy, and believes the kid could help him out on a few of his own scams. Despite being older, more experienced and completely amoral, Marcos works (scams) best with a partner. His own partner of longstanding has disappeared, so he wants to take Juan under his wing, at least for a day, to their own mutual benefit.

Whereas Juan has some ability, knows the classic routines, can improvise on the spot and has an honest seeming face (labelled a great asset for the grifter), he lacks the ruthlessness of his mentor, who mocks him often. He approaches scamming people with reluctance, especially the vulnerable (like sweet little old ladies). Such a conscience, such empathy is a major flaw in a grifter, and Marcos never resists the impulse to keep berating Juan for it.

Two very different men, with a similar profession, but with very different approaches to work and life. Juan disdains the loud, confrontational approach certain scams require, Marcos relishes them and enjoys ripping off other people and gloating in their faces.

Marcos, who considers himself morally superior to thieves, robbers and murderers: “Using a gun is easy. This takes skill”, nonetheless cares not one whit about using and abusing anyone to achieve his scamming objectives.

Even family. Especially family. Upon receiving a call from his estranged sister Valeria (Leticia Bredice), who works as a concierge at a major hotel, the two con artists embark on a plan to scam a businessman out of a fortune for the Nine Queens. The Nine Queens of the title are a set of stamps dating from the Weimar Republic, which are completely unique and utterly valuable.

The two men, coming from completely different places in life, constantly test each other, redefining each other’s boundaries. They are working for completely different reasons. Marcos clearly loves screwing people over. Screwing people over is more important than the score, but he loves the score as well. He looks out for Number One at all times. Throughout the film, former con partners lament the way Marcos screwed them over, and we keep wondering when he’ll try the same thing on Juan.

Juan’s apparent need to scam is completely different. He has major reservations against doing it despite his ability, but is ultimately compelled to go along with everything to help out his father, who languishes in jail. The father, an old school grifter who nevertheless got caught, abjures his son from following the same path.

In a particularly strong scene, the father tries to show the son that the street – scam life is not for him, and does so simply with a game of what is called Three Card Monte in the US. In other countries, such as some Mediterranean countries, it’s called variations on Find the Queen. And a Red Queen from a standard deck of cards is the device the father uses to show his son’s perceived weakness.

Another great scene has Marcos, offended at being called a thief, show Juan who the real operators are. In an amazing display, twenty different kinds of scams and thieves, villains and reprobates are shown operating simultaneously all around them, to Juan’s dismay, as Marcos lists them all. Argentina, we see, or at least Buenos Aires, is overflowing with thieves, from the lowest, most brutish scammers to the highest levels of government who screw the greatest number of people at the same time.

As in life, as in intricate scams: everything that can go wrong does go wrong. With mounting desperation Juan and Marcos try everything they can to make their plan to scam the businessman come to fruition. The timeline of the film covers a long 24 hours, and at the end, it remains to be seen as to who the most successful scammer will ultimately be.

To write too much would spoil the intricate delights the film has to offer. Whilst it might not look like a particularly spectacular film since it was made with the kind of budget that wouldn’t even cover the cocaine usage of the electricians on your average American independent feature, it still looks a treat and moves at a cracking pace. The nervy energy of the plot crackles on the screen, as we wait for more and more scams to unfold like those Russian matrioshka dolls that sit nestled inside each other.

I truly do love this film. The performances by the two leads couldn’t be better, the machinations of the plot are a delight, and it stands up as an entertaining and enjoyable film over multiple viewings. This is mostly because of the performances of the two leads, especially the magnetic and irritable Marcos, and the competence of the direction.

As a mark of Nine Queens’ quality, the American remake called Criminal, which starred John C. Reilly and Diego Luna in the lead roles, was an unmitigated disaster. Simply transposing the story to the States didn’t work and the film ended up as disposable as it was weak. The elements that made Nine Queens so sharp were entirely absent even though the two plots are identical, and that makes the original film look even stronger in comparison.

In the pantheon of scam films this ranks up there near the top, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The great tragedy of the film is that the wonderful director Fabian Bielinsky died in 2006, which is quite sad. It’s a shame to think he’s not going to get another chance to match or exceed his efforts here.

10 scammers, grifters, lifters, hooks, fences, blinds, artists, fiddlers, pigeon drops and Spanish Prisoners out of 10

“There are no saints. Just different tariffs.” – Nine Queens.