It may sound unfair to say this, but whenever a beautiful woman aggressively plays down her looks in a film, it almost inevitably comes across as a stunt. If the actress is extraordinary, we forget about the looks and sink into the characterization.
In "Turn the River," Famke Janssen, who has slithered through the likes of "Goldeneye" and the "X-Men" franchise, plays Kailey, a working-class, small-town pool hustler and card shark who couldn't care less how she looks. And because she doesn't care, after awhile neither do we. She makes the role work on her own terms.
And that's a good thing, because, as written, the role doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Kailey lives in upstate New York but frequently shows up in Manhattan, where she camps out at the pool hall of her surly mentor Quinn (Rip Torn). She even sleeps on top of the pool tables.
The real reason for these trips is to see her 11-year-old son Gulley (Jaymie Dornan). She gave him up at birth but keeps in tenuous contact. Gulley's alcoholic father, David (Matt Ross), and domineering mother (Lois Smith) make the boy's life semimiserable and Kailey aims to change all that by spiriting him across the border with her to Canada and a better life. The price tag for this escapade is 50 grand, which Kailey needs to score in a match with Quinn's leading pool shark.
Writer-director Chris Eigeman, an actor making his directing debut, has obviously seen a lot of pool-hustler movies and films noirs. But the thriller aspects of "Turn the River" are its weakest link. Eigeman can't get much suspense going in the pool sequences, which are shot so lackadaisically that, by comparison, they make the championship pool matches on cable TV look like "The Color of Money."
Janssen, who reportedly did her own pool shooting, is better served in the scenes with Gulley, which are wrenching in a coolly understated way. It's clear that this woman, who does not have much of a life, lives for her son. It's equally clear, in the sharp-edged scenes between Gulley and David, that the boy needs rescuing. David speaks calmly to his son but his every intonation is charged with threat and insinuation. Their byplay, because it is so subtle, captures the horror of parental abuse in ways that are far more effective than the usual melodramatic approach. These scenes powerfully set up Kailey's Canadian escapade.
Unfortunately, when her plan kicks into gear, "Turn the River" becomes a standard fatalistic misfits-on-the-run movie with more than its share of improbabilities. It's as if Eigeman didn't realize how good the best parts of his film were, and so went ahead and trashed them. Grade: B-.(Rated R for language.)