John Dahl’s pacey, insightful Rounders is about a young man, but it has the weight of experience behind it. In fact, that’s what makes it work. This is recognizably the product of a mid-life, mid-career director who brings his noir-honed gimlet gaze to the world of underground poker and sees that while the robust, rosy highs of the game aren’t the whole of it, neither are the bottoming-out dark nights of the soul. There’s a middle-ground where high-stakes poker isn’t pure drama but instead an ecosystem, one that houses stories without necessarily controlling them.
Matt Damon plays Mike, a talented young poker player who, as the movie opens, makes a critical mistake in a game with Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, doing a Russian accent that, to steal a phrase from the We Hate Movies podcast, is “a lion on a leash”). His overconfidence comes with a hefty fine: his whole $30,000 bankroll. It shakes him up, and he goes cold turkey on the whole game, trading all its upheaval and sudden reversals of fortune for a life that’s steady and dependable. He drives a truck. He attends his law school classes. He builds a life with his girlfriend and classmate, Jo (Gretchen Mol).
His past and present come into conflict when his old friend Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison and needs Mike’s help paying off a debt. (Never have a buddy named Worm.) Soon, Mike’s loyal attempts to help bail Worm out have led to Worm running up even more debt, this time in Mike’s name, and antagonizing the local mob. Mike and Worm have to come up with $15,000 fast, and that means hitting up every high-stakes game they can find in a non-stop, no-sleep marathon until they’ve got enough. (In a well-observed little detail, and one of Worm’s most sympathetic moments, they grab a barbershop shave in lieu of a nap.) Twists follow, of course–the movie has to get Mike back into the room for another game with the Oreo-munching Teddy KGB–but that’s the gist.
Rounders has a kind of mature acceptance to it. People are who they are, and they want what they want. You can call it cynical, if you want–nobody really changes–but it doesn’t feel that way. (“What choice?” Mike’s law professor says at one point. There are decisions you make because only a different person would be able to do otherwise.) It just feels, again, like an ecosystem: everybody’s got their part to play, everyone fits their niche. You just have to accept that certain habits are hard to break and certain lives won’t ever fit together. Mike loves Jo, and she loves him, but they’re fundamentally incompatible. To her, his poker-playing is a dangerous addiction and a distraction from the real workaday world; to him, at its best, it’s a career, one where there’s an element of luck but where success is largely a matter of skill. The lives they want can’t exist together, not with how they feel about them. There’s a real poignancy to the scene where they conclusively go their separate ways.
For me, the highlight of the film is John Turturro’s Joey Knish, a working poker player in the way that some people are working actors. Steady, generous, and completely free of illusion, Knish is the guy who proves Mike’s thesis that poker can be a career. He does it without any glamour, and his high-water mark is ultimately one Mike wants to surpass, but he also seems like the best-adjusted character in the movie, a working guy in a world of workaholics: “You little punk, I’m not playing for the thrill of fucking victory here. I owe rent, alimony, child support. I play for money. My kids eat. I got stones enough not to chase fucking pipe dreams of winning the World Series on ESPN.”
By the end of the movie, we believe that for Mike, the World Series isn’t a pipe dream. He may not win it, but we’ve seen that he can survive defeat. Hey, it’s a living.
Rounders is available streaming on HBO Max. You ideally should be looking at a picture of Matt Damon in the movie Rounders, but WordPress is malfunctioning and not letting me upload photos. This is an unrelated, pre-uploaded Matt Damon.