Periscope Depth

three stacks of high society

I don’t know if this will become a regular feature, but I’m not stopping until Spielberg returns my calls. So here’s my next amateur script breakdown: 1998′s Rounders. As usual, substantial spoilers follow.

Act One: We meet Mike, our lovable poker-hustling protagonist (Damon), his nemesis Teddy KGB (Malkovich, in simultaneously his most compelling and worst performance in years), his childhood buddy Worm (Norton) and his love interest Jo (Mol, and remember when everyone thought she was going to take off like an express train?). The most important players are all assembled.

The flashback that introduces us to Mike and his problem takes a little while, but it’s effective: Mike loses a poker game for $30,000 to Teddy KGB. This sets him on the straight-and-narrow path we find him on as the movie proper starts. It also establishes the tension that defines him: his perpetual caution.

17-Minute Mark: Mike tells Jo that he stopped in on the judges’ poker game last night. He defends what he was doing as a way to network. She talks to him like a recovering addict: full of warmth but unyielding in her concern.

Act Two: The turning point for the first Act is when Mike goes back to the poker game that Worm has scoped out in upstate New York. Up to that point, he is still on the honest path: law school, hot girlfriend, respectable prospects. But he can’t turn his back on his childhood friend.

From this point on, things start spinning out of control for our hero. Jo finds the “gangster roll” of hundreds that Mike won at the poker party. Worm, thinking he has Mike on his side again, starts running up Mike’s tab at the underground casino that Petra (Janssen) runs. This leads to Mike getting called out of meetings with his mock trial team.

Midpoint: Mike reaches his lowest point when he bombs out at the mock trial, embarrassing himself in front of the Dean (Landau) and the judge he’d hoped to impress. His legal career isn’t necessarily over, but the upward arc he’d enjoyed in the first half has now plummeted. Further, he’s losing touch with his law school friends, which forces him to spend more time with Worm and Petra.

This is Mike’s lowest point, which might be a surprise, considering:

Act Three: … Act Two ends with Mike and Worm getting brutally beat down by the Binghamton, NY police department. I recalled this scene vividly when popping the DVD in and figured it to be the midpoint. But it comes about three-quarters of the way through the movie. Odd, I thought. So Mike embarrassing himself in moot court is a lower point than Mike getting the shit kicked out of him by townie cops?

To which the answer is an obvious yes. Mike loses everything he held dear – his girlfriend, the respect of his peers, his shot at a promising career in law – by stumbling into moot court after an all-night Atlantic City bender. He loses nothing more than a few ounces of blood in the beating. Moreover, he makes an important turning point: he cuts Worm loose. As important as Worm’s friendship has been, Mike realizes that Worm’s behavior will only drag him down.

Act Three is not perfectly executed. A good Act Three should never let up on the tension, and Rounders gives us several pauses for breath. Mike gets the money from the Dean. He tells an entertaining but long story about Johnny Chan to Knish (Turturro). And, most damningly, we see his hole cards in the climactic hand against Teddy KGB.

So there are flaws. But the story is as it should be. And even if the arc is a little mellower than it ought to be, we still follow a hero’s rise, fall and redemption – the heart of modern movie-making.

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