Turn the River

This Hustler's After The Color of Motherhood.


Originally published at Blogcritics in my Under the Radar feature.

Even though we should know better, sometimes it’s fairly easy to mistake the characters an actor plays with what he or she must be like in real life. For example, if you tried an experiment and asked a group of strangers about A-list stars, a majority would probably tell you that Tom Hanks seems like the nicest guy on the planet given his work in Forrest Gump and Big (which is why they avoided his brilliant turn as a hit-man in Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition). And in the same turn, that probably Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, and Basic Instinct star Michael Douglas seems like he’d be a tad intimidating. Sure enough, it’s this kind of thinking that spans the entire realm of all celebrities whether they’re actors, athletes or musicians whose lives are thrust in front of us in a multitude of ways, all inviting us to label them by their creative output.

Case in point: the highly verbal independent film star, Chris Eigeman a.k.a. an actor upon whom I developed quite an irrationally intellectual crush in the early '90s. Ever since I saw Chris Eigeman in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona -- dissecting the process of physical therapy and analyzing what’s really going on at the end of The Graduate — I became a fan of the actor’s uniquely neurotic delivery of dialogue. Simply put, Eigeman can make the most complicated paragraphs of scripted words sound naturally effortless.

Thus, over the years, since his scene stealing performance in Stillman’s Metropolitan, it’s no wonder that Eigeman has attracted some truly innovative writers such as Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) and television scribes including Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls) and Peter Mehlman (It’s Like You Know). Indeed if there were ever a verbal Olympics, I’m going on record as stating that the American team should consist of Eigeman as its captain, quickly followed by Lauren Graham, Campbell Scott, Parker Posey, Matthew Perry, and Topher Grace.

And it’s precisely this type of thinking, based on the characters Eigeman has portrayed again and again, that made his much darker, far less verbal, noir-tinged feature filmmaking debut, Turn the River, remind me once again that — similar to the way you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (as then no one would read Catcher in the Rye) — you shouldn’t judge a man by how many WASPs he’s played. In a truly memorable and impressively subtle character-driven work — Eigeman’s first as a writer/director — he cast his vastly underrated Treatment co-star Famke Janssen (Goldeneye, X-Men, Made) as Kailey, a desperate New York pool hustler, eager to get together enough money to take her child away from her ex and head across the border to start a new life.

Winner of three awards at the Hamptons International Film Festival and lauded with praise by some of the nation’s top critics equally taken by both Eigeman’s debut and Dutch born actress Janssen’s mesmerizing portrayal that was even better than Maggie Gyllenhaal’s similarly themed work in last year’s Sherrybaby, this independent stunner has recently landed on DVD shelves. After having penned a couple of scenes here and there, once Eigeman wrapped The Treatment, he turned once again to his unfinished screenplay and once he began writing Kailey’s dialogue, he told IFC’s Stephen Saito that “it was incredibly evident that I was writing for Famke — there’s something very defining about her,” which he attributes to her “fearlessness” and “great cowboy spirit… both in her life and in her work.”

Although he notes that “it was truly f***ing terrifying,” to shoot the film’s “20 or 30 pool shots,” which they photographed and named and Eigeman laments the fact that he didn’t have the same “support structure to try and pull something like [Martin Scorsese’s Color of Money] off,” he admits that his cast including Janssen got “good enough that we could just let them play. We’d shoot 360 degrees and let them go.” However, while pool plays a primary role as it is Kailey’s immediate source of income aside from a few poker games here and there, Turn the River is at its heart a humanistic portrait of a woman who will do anything to be with her child.

As the film begins, we find ourselves moved by Kailey, who, despite having no visitation rights with her 11-year-old son Gulley (Jaymie Dornan), mails letters to the pool hall run by her trusted friend and fatherly mentor Quinette (a terrific Rip Torn), only able to arrange meetings with her son in secret. While admittedly we’re torn when we become acquainted with Kailey’s plan to kidnap her willing son, once we meet Gulley’s overly religious and domineering birth father David (Matt Ross) and his new submissive wife Ellen (Marin Hinkle), we realize that neither situation is ideal for Gulley and in the end, while a sense of foreboding pervades, we want to believe that Kailey will be able to quit hustling and settle down. Yet, Eigeman refuses to let us off the hook easily — as a veteran of independent cinema, he respects the intelligence of his audience enough not to offer any shortcuts and makes each and every plot turn seem entirely real and inevitable.

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Also featuring a wonderful music score by Clogs, comprised of “four musicians from the U.S. and Australia who compose and improvise using sounds, textures and influences from across the musical spectrum,” Turn the River plays first and foremost as a tremendous film about motherhood and secondly as an above-average poolroom drama wherein, Eigeman notes that just like sex scenes, pool shots are “infinitely less interesting than [the expressions on] people’s faces.” And with this in mind, the entire film serves as a wonderful showcase to the tour de force performance by Janssen.

Likewise, hopefully if it catches on, Turn the River will earn this truly talented performer many, many more roles… that is, as long as we don’t typecast her as a pool-shark anytime soon. Although, much like the verbal Eigeman — if the game of pool ever becomes an Olympic event, we’ll know whom to send for that category as well.