In everyday usage, a "poker face" is a deadpan expression that gives nothing away. But as Rounders aptly demonstrates, being a serious, professional poker player means more than just keeping a straight face. And in these high-stakes games, there's no such thing as luck.
Like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) guides the audience through the labyrinthine social rituals and obscure lingo of an insular culture. He's immersed in that world, but maintains enough distance to describe it to outsiders (in an excellent use of voice-over).
By day, Mike is a promising law student who seems destined for a golden future. He's a favorite of the dean (Martin Landau) and stays inspired with the help of his girlfriend and fellow student, Jo (Gretchen Mol). But at night (and at heart), Mike's a rounder, someone who makes a living playing poker, either at a quasi-legal card club or hustling unsuspecting civilians.
Director John Dahl and screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman effectively demonstrate the thrill of expert play. Mike scans the cards with mathematical precision, remembering what's been played and constantly calculating odds, but he primarily watches -- and instantly "reads" -- the behavior of other players. What rounders do, he explains, isn't gambling; it's all about skill: "If you can't spot the sucker in the first five minutes, then you're the sucker."
The filmmakers also delineate the strata of a rounder's life in New York City, from various games with "fish" (suckers with more money than skill) to the poker clubs, which vary from the more respectable Chesterfields to an edgy, subterranean lair run by Teddy KGB (a malevolent John Malkovich employing a near-inscrutable Russian émigré accent).
After Mike loses everything in a big game, he decides to quit cold turkey, getting a job from Joey Knish (John Turturro), an occasional player who has eased into legitimate business. Temptation looms when his old friend Worm (Edward Norton) is released from jail and dives headfirst into the life, pulling Mike along with him. Worm is as reckless as Mike is methodical. His increasingly dangerous accumulation of debt forces Mike to re-evaluate not just the bonds of their friendship, but his own conflicting priorities.
Rounders is a morality tale set in a world that plays by its own rules. Like Dahl's noir films, it's formula with a twist: a very strong cast (Norton is especially good as a man who dearly deserves his nickname), colorful and stereotypical characters who nonetheless still hold a few surprises up their sleeves, and a claustrophobic world made surprisingly expansive by cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier's sweat-soaked widescreen images.
Play the hand you're dealt, Rounders resoundingly concludes, but don't be a sucker. Make the most of it.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.