A jumpy forger asks an attractive pool hustler acquaintance, "What are you doing in town?" Without missing a beat, she replies, "Trying to get out." It's an apt summary of the entire plot of Turn the River, a stark, barebones genre piece redolent of rosin, racks, and eight balls, where the winning of a hustle bet of $50,000 doesn't signify triumph but escape.
Chris Eigeman makes an impressive debut as writer/director of Turn the River, ably abetted by an intense, edgy star turn from Famke Janssen as a pool hustler who wants to grab her abused son away from his weak, alcoholic father and get the hell out of town fast.
Eigeman's grainy and rank 16mm-to-HD infusion captures the scant, fetid tone of broken down pool halls and cracked glass bars infested with third-rate hustlers and frat boys slumming for a hustle. Not as mannered as Scorsese's The Color of Money but more reflecting the squalor of Rossen's The Hustler, Eigeman composes and cuts his shots communicating the anxious desperation of the denizens of these lower depths, picking up men in cheap suits as the hustlers break for a win or a loss -- the style reflecting their souls.
With Eigeman setting the mood, it is at first disconcerting to see Janssen stroll in, looking like a television star trying to look desperate and fit in to the milieu. But it doesn't take long before that idea is dumped. Janssen's Kailey Sullivan is a determined woman, her every movement a single-minded trajectory to rescue her son, Gulley (Jaymie Dornan), from the clutches of remarried, abusive David (Matt Ross) and his dominating, religious crackpot mother Abigail (Lois Smith in full, regal intimidation mode). Janssen is wired and blinded, seeing her ultimate goal to win hustle money fast to pay for fake passports that will take her and Gulley across the Canadian border and away from the generically-named The City. She has no time off for camaraderie and love, just pool. In the pool hall scenes, Kailey is psychotically purposeful in winning the games for the bucks -- there's no lingering love for the aesthetics of pool here. But Kailey softens up in her surreptitious early morning meetings with Gulley, bending to her knees to greet her son, her eyes conveying the emotional undercurrents in this hardened woman.
In these quiet moments, Eigeman relaxes his grip. The conversations between mother and son betray emotional warmth that softens the edges of the murky poolroom scenes. Eigeman also conveys child abuse in a non-exploitative, non-Hollywood way. No dark shadows falling over children, no big-moment confrontations, just a passing glance at Gulley's broken wrist or the scratches on his face -- simply a normal day for Gulley.
We also get a hotwire supporting cast for backup. The old school Chicago Steppenwolf theater contingent is here in force, including the aforementioned Smith along with Terry Kinney as the feral forger with a soft spot for Kailey. Rip Torn lumbers and roars through his role as grumpy Alan, Kailey's mentor, as only Rip Torn can. (When Kailey interrupts Torn during an early morning tryst, he grumbles, "You're making my retirement difficult in many, many ways.")
The only false note in the film is an unnecessary exposition scene of Kailey tearfully explaining to Alan how she got to this point. Janssen tries hard but the scene still remains hackneyed. Then again, after she explains her back story, Kailey proceeds to the back room of the pool hall, collapsing on top of a pool table. The image of Kailey asleep on the green felt, restoring herself for the next game, encapsulates the emotional obsession and force of the film in a single, unvarnished image.
3-ball in the side pocket.