The 2008 Indianapolis International Film Festival is underway. I'll be providing reviews of features and shorts throughout...
Audiences familiar with European beauty Famke Janssen from her work in high-octane fare like the X-Men films and Stephen Sommers' immortally entertaining Deep Rising may be surprised to find the actress possessed of considerable depth as the de-glammed lead in debuting writer / director Chris Eigeman’s poignant, deftly constructed lo-fi thriller Turn the River. Shot in and around the outer edges of Manhattan in grainy, loose compositions, the picture calls to mind genre-tinged character studies of the ‘70s like Cutter and Bone and Cisco Pike - films about flawed people working to make good the only way they knew how, more often than not through less-than-scrupulous means.
Janssen’s Kailey is a hard-edged rambler, as adept at running back-room poker games as she is hustling pool. Having long ago foregone custody of her precocious son Gully to avoid a crippling jail sentence, she maintains clandestine contact with him through her surrogate father Teddy (the always welcome Rip Torn) via letters left at Teddy’s dank pool hall. Increasingly concerned that Gully may be suffering abuse at the hands of his emotionally immature father, Kailey hatches a plot to rescue Gully and head north to Canada, but lacks the necessary funds to score convincing faux-passports. With Teddy’s help she arranges a match against a shark that frequents his hall, setting off a volatile chain of events as she scrambles to start over with her son.
Character-actor Eigeman’s first crack behind both the keyboard and camera yields impressive results. Nestled somewhere between The Hustler’s coolly detached study of the game and The Color of Money’s gonzo you-are-the-ball! approach, River keeps its competitive sequences interesting without ever loosing focus of Kailey’s plight. Kailey is presented as a sort of study in contrast – on the one hand, she strives to preserve some sense of honor in her hustling, while on the other it’s all a means to the end of kidnapping her child. It’s this sort of carefully structured, conflicted characterization – and Eigeman’s ultimate unwillingness to offer clear-cut heroes and villains – that steers River into the realm of morally hazy drama that drove '70s American cinema to such involving returns. A little late-game melodrama involving Kailey tying up loose ends before lighting out with Gully rings false, but doesn't impart any irreparable damage.
Janssen turns in nuanced, focused work as Kailey. She plays the character as proud in spite of her self-imposed lot, unafraid to go head-to-head with life, and just confident enough to keep herself a half-step ahead in a sub-cultural dominated by men. It’s clear too, though, that Janssen understands how much Kailey’s flaws have cost her. Eigeman’s script doesn’t paint Kailey as a prodigy or reliant on sex appeal to turn the tables – she just plays the game – whatever it may be – and plays it hard. It’s worth noting Janssen would have a future on the amateur 9-pocket circuit should she ever tire of acting – Eigeman’s fluid, slow-cut style highlights the fact that she and her on-screen counterparts are all sinking their own trick shots.
Considering the talent involved and the positive results achieved, life outside the festival circuit for Turn the River is a given, though it remains to be seen where the film will go from here and when it will see a release beyond specialized engagements. A winning mixture of finely drawn human drama and suspense, the picture represents a solid throwback to the glory days of character-driven storytelling.