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Rounders (1998): Three Stacks of High Society

Rounders (John Dahl, 1998)
[originally posted 12Apr2000]


photo credit: Wikipedia

In the end, you’re not playing the cards. You’re playing the player.

There are two types of people watching Rounders: those who play poker and those who don’t. If you can identify in any way with Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) in this movie, it’s going to captivate you. If you’re not a card player…you can probably forget it.

photo credit:

John Malkovich has never looked so human as he does in this movie. Too bad about the accent, though.

Mike McDermott (Damon) is a professional poker player and a law school student, in that order. One night, in an attempt to raise the capital for a trip to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker, McDermott loses his whole thirty thousand dollar bankroll to the owner of his favorite underground card club, Teddy KGB (Dangerous Liaisons‘ John Malkovich). The next day, he swears off cards, but we get the feeling he does so in order to keep his relationship with Jo (Donnie Brasco‘s Gretchen Mol) alive. His resolve is shaken, and quickly destroyed, when his best friend growing up, Worm (American History X‘s Edward Norton), is released from prison, and McDermott soon finds himself back at the table.

This movie succeeds on a number of levels, and surprisingly so. Of course, many of those levels have to do with cards, and if (as I said) you’re not enchanted, or at least obsessed, with the non-luck aspects of any game of chance, it’ll probably bore you stiff. But even if you’re only a weekend (or rarer) player at the card table, the horse track, or the stock market, you’d do well to listen to Damon’s voice-overs throughout the movie, which have loads of excellent information (and mirror things I’ve been telling novice horseplayers for years).

Other than that, the insights into relationships, and the ways obsession can destroy them, are profound. Well, okay, maybe not profound, but handled with more subtlety and wit than I’ve seen in just about forever. Mol isn’t really onstage long enough to give her any real chemistry with Damon, but take it from me, the ways they react to one another throughout the film are dead on. More importantly, both to the plot and to the success of the movie, is the relationship between McDermott and Worm. Edward Norton proves once again he’s one of Hollywood’s true rising talents, and the deeper motivations that drive his character are exposed just well enough that we can see them. Not an easy task, and one sure to be uncovered if the actor doesn’t understand those motivations and the viewer does.

photo credit:

Norton, Damon, and Turturro: of the three, Norton is the only one who equalled his performance in this movie anywhere else.

The other main aspect of the film is the suspense during the actual card games. Another thing that’s not easy to pull off, and often the director resorts to insane, next-to-impossible combinations of cards to make it work. (Remember the climactic hand in Richard Donner’s 1994 Maverick remake?) In the first scene, when Teddy KGB nails McDermott, the winning hand is a full house. Welcome to the real world of poker, where oftentimes it’s the guy holding the two pair that ends up forty grand richer at the end of the night. Dahl realizes, repeatedly, that it’s not the cards in the hand that provide the action, it’s the way the characters react to one another. One almost thinks that Dahl could have pulled this movie off by putting Damon, Norton, Malkovich (without the cheesy accent), John Turturro, and two or three of the other cardplayers around a table and shot two hours of one game.

Definitely worth a rental. ****



About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

One response »

  1. Pingback: The Biggest Game in Town (1983): Yes, We Really Do Act This Way | Popcorn for Breakfast

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