Turn the River
Director: Chris Eigeman. Cast: Famke Janssen, Jaymie Dornan, Rip Torn, Matt Ross, Terry Kinney, Marin Hinkle, Lois Smith, John Juback, Tony Robles, Ari Graynor, Jordan Bridges, Zoe Lister Jones, Santo D'Asaro, Jordan Lage. Screenplay: Chris Eigeman.

Photo © 2008 Screen Media Films
Famke Janssen cuts the sharpest, sexiest figure around a billiard table since Béatrice Dalle and Maggie Cheung got nervously reacquainted in Clean, but Janssen's isn't a self-consciously "sexy" performance, and it's more, too, than the stereotypically "deglammed" performance by which exquisite actresses break out of their commercial packaging and prove to the world that they care about character work. Or, well, maybe there's a smidge of that kind of performance, but Janssen brings such tough, candid conviction and unromanticized, desperate logic to single mom Kailey Sullivan that there's no question this movie means more to her than a calling card for more serious roles. Janssen palpably "sees" and connects to this woman, a semi-drifter in upstate New York who has to arrange secret meetings and covert correspondence in order to see her 11-year-old son Gulley (Jaymie Dornan), who lives in Manhattan with his bitter, hard-driving father (Matt Ross, roughing up his familiar Aviator decency) and his warm, slightly cowed stepmother (Marin Hinkle, always welcome). Kailey is distressed to see her son's arm broken with no great explanation forthcoming about how this happened; you can tell she suspects her ex-husband, but you can also tell that, for Kailey, a state of alarm is not one of teary panic but one of sour affirmation that the world persists in being cruel and difficult. Gulley, though, more than most of the people Kailey knows, has nothing in his past or personality to deserve or invite these hard knocks—what eleven-year-old does?—and so she devises a plan to use her most distinguishing talent, a steely knack around the pool table, to raise some quick cash and whisk the both of them into Canada.

Turn the River, written and directed by the Whit Stillman repertory actor Chris Eigeman, waffles for a while about how clear-headed or not Kailey's plan actually is. I happily grant that the movie's job is to share her convictions and see where they take her (and take everyone else), more than to editorialize about her good judgment or lack of it. Still, I couldn't help wanting to read Kailey a little more closely as she incubates these plans or spends some time alone with her thoughts, and I had a hard time erasing my internal skepticisms about the pushy ways in which Eigeman accumulates lingering dread around the father or avuncular generosity around Rip Torn's pool-hall manager Teddy Quinette, always on call to hook Kailey up with a well-paying game or a table to sleep on. When Lois Smith shows up as Gulley's autocrat of a Catholic grandmother, the dividing line between the sympathetic and vilifiable characters only seems to amplify, at least in terms of the writing and the implications of framing and editing, though it must be said that Eigeman and his cast avoid the most straightforward takes on the good, the bad, and the ugly in their characters. The billiard scenes are well-shot for shifting mood around the table and for a worn, redolent, tangible feel for texture and atmosphere. If the movie could afford to be clearer about the precise mechanics of strategy and counter-strategy—when Kailey's climactic opponent shows up with a surprising sidekick, I had no idea what this second man's presence actually connoted—Eigeman gets some real charge and psychological resonance out of several build-up scenes, such as Kailey's first attempt to cash in on a few headstrong preppies. The fact that she senses less danger from these slumming, cocksure elites than I immediately did either telegraphs Kailey's familiarity with tense situations and her confidence at being able to take care of herself, or it communicates that she really doesn't think fully about the dangers she opens herself up to. Both the scene and the movie play intelligently to both theses, and to several ambiguities in between, and when Turn the River works best, just the framing of space around its protagonist imparts its own tension. Kailey plays one long bout in a private, closed-door salon at the back of Quinette's low-rent establishment that technically goes well for her but only underscores her social invisibility and personal vulnerability, especially in contrast to the expansive, supervised openness of the rest of the hall.

Eigeman may or may not be a filmmaker to watch. Turn the River sometimes impresses with very specific senses of atmosphere and undercurrent, and other times settles for a more generalized sense of the down and out, or of restrictive privilege. The fullness of the film's engagement with Kailey and her point of view is not always clear, and more precision and adjudication of pacing and emphasis across the board might have made Kailey's one-pocket pipe dream seem like more than an arbitrary way for her to win back her son. I experienced one unbidden image of Jane Wyman cuing up a rack to keep her kids in good china and technicolor clothes, despite this movie's evident desire to be more regionally and psychologically specific than a blanket reprise of melodramatic tropes. But Turn the River, sometimes like Kailey herself and sometimes not, has a laudable habit of pulling back at the right moments and proving its mettle in unexpected ways. The generic confusion at the end, when Eigeman suddenly reveals himself to have written a rather grim and downtrodden revenge comedy, and then makes another swerve into beat-the-clock suspense, actually clarifies Kailey's own jumble of motives and self-perceptions, and it gives the actors some exciting room to shade in the parts of their characters that we've heard about more often than we've seen: the husband's tenderness, for example, and Kailey's fear of failure. Janssen keeps us rooting for the character without falsely assuaging us of Kailey's prospects as a role model or provider, though her love for Gulley is never in question—a testament, too, to the very dexterous playing by young Dornan in a tricky, important role. Turn the River may not amount or even aspire to more than a slightly marginal character study, but close and careful study, in film as anywhere else, is a virtue in itself, especially when it yields credible surprises and final outpourings of feeling that distill our sense of character while also playing fair by the rules of the known world. Eigeman has plenty of room to grow if he makes another film—lighting, sound, and music are almost completely unexploited as revelatory devices, and the backstory on these characters both blurs and knots into something we don't fully grasp and may not actually need, especially compared to the urgency and precision of the unfolding present. Still, Turn the River is smart and insinuating, and Janssen—comfortable in her character's skin without making a huge show of it, lucid about Kailey's dependencies and coping mechanisms without dulling her ability to love forthrightly and believe in her own impractical plans—proves that she has what it takes to introduce us to striking, complicated women on screen, mentally alive if not always wise, and physically vivid beyond her natural beauty. Let's hope this movie marks a turn in her visible but so far under-tested career. B–

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