What’s most surprising about Nine Queens, a wry if awfully derivative caper come-on from first-time feature writer-director Fabiín Bielinsky, is how easily it suckers you into its swindle. 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 with just one purpose. You’re no simp. 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. It relaxes and revels in the small lies, the taking of chump change here and there, before at 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.
At a convenience store, 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 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 Darán) who is shoplifting for kicks, and he offers the kid a deal: If Juan pairs up with him just for the day, they’ll spilt the profits 50-50. Or so it seems.
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 forgeries. Sandler promises Marcos 10 percent of the take for his help — a figure Marcos quickly ups to 90. “You came to me,” Marcos snarls through facial hair that looks glued on.
So begins a game of cat and mouse, with no animal distinguishable from another: Is Juan really a naïf? Is Marcos’ sister Valeria (Leticia Brédice), a hotel concierge in high heels, really cold-blooded enough to 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?
Were this an American film, Marcos would have been played by George Clooney; Juan might have been Matt Damon or Edward Norton. (The resemblances are remarkable at times.) And unlike Mamet, who assigns a gravity to his con games that too often sinks them altogether, Bielinsky is 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.