Rounders is the type of Hollywood movie Hollywood doesn't make anymore, a smart, lean, star-powered, character-driven melodrama. It's melodramatic not due to the presence of any emotional bombast (there is none), but in the way it tells a straightforward story that sticks to clear terms of good and bad even when those terms threaten to blur, without probing too deeply into any of the characters. Its dramatic aspirations aren't large, but its too well-executed to be dismissed. Thanks to a whip-smart, fluid script by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, briskly paced, efficient direction from John Dahl, and sparkling, unpretentious acting across the board, Rounders is a crackling, enthralling pleasure.
It's a subculture movie, and the subculture here is that consisting of the denizens and conduct codes of backroom poker. It obeys rule number one of any subculture story, which is to know your subculture. Rounders creates a well-worn milieu that feels authentic throughout, right down to the game itself. Poker is one of those activities tailor-made for film treatment, consisting of mental strategy, psychological gymnastics, and the polarized emotional swoops that come from high stakes. Few films are able to get at its potential, but this is one of them, and it does it with great help from narration. Narration is rarely used well in film, it's often an escape route for filmmakers who don't know how to convey particular emotions or psychological states of mind without verbally explaining them. Levien and Koppelman use it exactly right (and they know exactly when not to use it), always to provide information that enhances the power of what's already on the screen, never as an end unto itself. So, as poker hands are played, we usually know exactly what a particular play of a card or betting tactic means to the players involved. Poker jargon is used generously, and though it's difficult to understand exactly what's being said at all times, it's always easy to follow the mounting stakes. The effect is to pull us deeply into the film, involving us in the moment, taking us to giddy levels of suspense.
This technically adept grace is the film's underlying ace in the hole, and Dahl, Levien and Koppelman have placed a riveting yarn on top of it. Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) is a natural-born poker whiz with an interfering tendency to want to play it straight. This tendency influences not only his playing style, but his lifestyle. He's a preppy do-gooder, with a beautiful, sensible girlfriend (Gretchen Mol) and a sensible career path to attorneyhood as soon as he finishes law school. What he also has is an undying love of the game and an unconditional loyalty to his best friend Worm (Edward Norton). Worm is also a die-hard poker player, but he's Mike's mirror opposite. He's a shifty down-and-outer who never plays the game straight, and his reckless impulsiveness has gotten him into a world of debt, with all the health risks that follow. So Mike is drawn into a place that's both tempting and dangerous-helping his friend gives him the excuse to do the thing he loves, the thing for which his schooling, his girlfriend and possibly his own health are all anted into the pot.
A straight-laced man threatened by loyalty to a reckless friend isn't a trailblazing premise, but it almost feels that way with the rigor of the talent filling it out. Damon exudes an extraordinarily compelling charisma here, effortlessly communicating the sense that his sullen gentility is hiding a deeply buried wild streak, hinted at by the spare usage of that million-dollar smile. He could carry this film almost entirely on his back, though he doesn't need to. Norton continues to do exceptional work with his increasingly diversified resume; he's in a somewhat thankless, one-note role here, but he buries himself in its desperate grunginess. Particularly memorable in support are John Turturro and John Malkovich as Mike's dignified mentor and dangerous adversary, who each inhabit their roles with a forceful quietude.
These two guys are ultimately the ones vying for Mike's soul, though the film never pushes it into such theatrical terms. Rounders works for its decided lack of theatricality, for placing its conflicts within a groundwork of hard-earned authenticity that gives a potentially tired premise a vibrant life. The movie never does plunge below this surface-it's ultimately an unshaded ode to following your bliss, and it doesn't have the time or the energy left to truly explore the tricky implications of that bliss. For a film about the dangers of taking wild risks, the more psychologically complex aspects of the film are taken at face value. For most films, that's a crippling deficiency, but not here. Rounders ably demonstrates how effective good, solid filmmaking can be on its face.