Nine Queens opens on a close-up: one cigarette being lit with another. The camera pulls out to show chainsmoker Juan (Gastón Pauls), shifting his weight and peering across the street at an Esso gas station. He flicks the butt, crosses the street, and enters the convenience store, where he fiddles with bags of chips and cookies, until he decides on his purchase. At the counter, he runs his scam, asking for change for a large bill, miscounting and confusing the clerk. She goes off duty while he’s still in the store, and Juan decides to press his luck, trying the same scam on her replacement, whereupon he’s busted by a detective who happens to be shopping, and has observed the whole deal.
As tends to happen in movies about conmen, this opening scene doesn’t take you quite where you’re expecting to go. And neither do many of the scenes that follow — deceit is, of course, the name of this game. Still, this first scene in the convenience store sets up Juan’s youthful naïvete and nerve (going for that second scam seems especially risky), and sets in motion his meeting with another, more experienced conman, Marcos (Ricardo Darín). Theirs is a partnership of some convenience: Marcos reveals that his previous partner has recently moved on, and he’s looking for a replacement; Juan is looking for instruction and a leg up in the business. Over the next 36 hours or so, they roam the streets of Buenos Aires, testing one another’s conning abilities and ostensible moral fibers.
Their differences are telling. Though Marcos is ruthless about taking money from whomever he can (including little old ladies), while Juan wants to draw lines. But as Marcos explains it, cons go on continuously, and con artists are everywhere; as he lists the many names for such artists, the camera searches the street, suggesting that anyone in frame might be a thief. Given that the film takes place in Argentina, this speech has added resonance, but certainly, it applies broadly, to any population premised on class divisions and shot through with advertising campaigns that reaffirm overclasses’ sense of superiority and privilege and fill underclasses with desire.
Nine Queens‘ class analysis is acute, and narrowly focused on defining the characters. Juan’s eagerness to find a big, fast job is motivated by his poor father’s situation (he’s in prison for scamming, and needs money, and his good son wants to put what his father has taught him to good, mostly moral use). And Marcos, well, he’s a bit more reckless, at least as you understand him, always looking for the huge, put-you-over job, willing to gamble, but also confident of his own scamming skills. He had money, or his late father did, in an estate that Marcos squandered and also essentially stole from his two siblings, angry Valeria (Leticia Brédice) and undauntedly doting Federico (Tomás Fonzi).
These complicated and emotionally volatile family ties are only one angle that the film works well. The central scam that occupies Marcos and Juan involves a sheet of rare stamps, the “Nine Queens.” Or rather, it’s a sheet of faux-stamps, but, as you hear it, very good quality art. They locate a buyer, Gandolfo (Ignasi Abadal), who’s about to leave town quick because he’s been busted for his own expansively shady deals. They have only a matter of hours to set up the deal and deliver. The scam seems simple enough, but inevitably, problems crop up. Also inevitably, most of these problems have to do with doubt and betrayal: as much as the conmen must depend on and trust one another to get their work done, they must also assume, given their career choice, that no one can be trusted. Thus, their evolving dilemma.
For starters, Gandolfo happens to be staying at the very swank hotel where Valeria works. Ostensibly, this is a good thing — they have access to and knowledge of the hotel’s backdoors. But then Marcos must admit the bad blood between him and his sister, and suddenly, there’s a little edge of trouble. Or again, they bring in the forged stamps for a rush job of an inspection, a careful balance of trust and distrust that becomes more complicated than it needs to be. Or again, a point comes up when the smarmy Gandolfo sets up a ridiculous deal-breaker that has to do with use of Valeria. Needless to say, this becomes a very dicey transaction for everyone.
The conman movie formula — at least as it’s been honed by makers like David Mamet or even George Roy Hill (The Sting) — brings with it certain expectations. You expect characters to be intelligent and ruthless, to betray one another, and act out or on some masculine ideals. You might also expect that the stakes have some metaphorical resonance, as it is unlikely that you have a precise sense of what it means to win and/or lose millions of dollars in a card game, real estate ruse, or sexual subterfuge. And you surely expect that the plot of a conman movie will begin a few steps ahead of you and maintain that distance, more or less, throughout.
Bielinsky’s movie does this much, but it also does something more interesting, which is to explore the relationship between truth and trust, as this develops and breaks down in a subtle and specific case, between Juan and Marcos. That they have and lose other relationships also dependent on these poles for definition only makes their own teaming up more fascinating — they’re a moral and emotional car wreck waiting to happen. Their gamesmanship is clever and involving, but less so than their shifting psychic balance, as Juan judges Marcos, or Marcos is impressed by Juan, or either is moved to protect the other (or himself) in the various “pinches” that come up.
Such shifts have as much to do with the environments Juan and Marcos inhabit as they do with actual plot turns (as some of these turns are, unavoidably in this context, false). And so you read characters as they appear in each moment, unable to put together a completely coherent narrative of who is whom, or better, who will be whom a few scenes down the road.
Director of photography Marcelo Camorino brings a fluid yet simultaneously rough-and-ready sensibility to this shrewdly winding narrative. At one point, Juan and Marcos converse while Marcos sits inside a café whose waiter they’re scamming, and Juan sits outside, on a bench — the windowsill marks the distinction between inside and out, but the window allows free movement of noise, air, rhythm. A street sensibility always makes its way inside, somehow.
When Juan and Marcos are on the street, they look at ease and part of the crowd; the handheld and long-shot camerawork allows you to feel intimacy but also distance. But when they’re inside, standing among the glass and high-tech décor of the hotel, the con men are slightly less comfortable, surrounded by scammers in suits. In this space, you’re tempted to think back to that early scene, when Marcos points out the crooks on the street, supposedly working invisibly. You might even think that thieving is unlimited to urban “deviants,” obvious or not. At its most successful, thieving takes place far from the street.