Three years after his somewhat disappointing giallo—murder-mystery Italian style—“Sleepless,” Dario Argento brings to American audiences, courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment, his film “The Card Player” (2004). Featuring a predominantly Italian cast and one Irish actor, this suspense-thriller is about Detective Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) and a case that involves poker and a serial killer. The action starts immediately as Anna receives an email from the kidnapper of an English tourist challenging the police to a game of online poker. The girl will lose a body part for every hand the police lose. She will be set free if they win the game. They only have one hour to make the decision to play. Refuse to accept and the girl dies. Anna’s superior regretfully instructs her not to comply with the kidnapper’s demands. Irish forensics specialist Liam Cunningham (John Brennan) is sent to Italy to assist local authorities in finding the kidnapper-turned-killer. As theories lead to clues and strategy closer to the killer’s den, Anna suspects that the man she and her colleagues are looking for is right in front of their eyes.
One of the first observations to be made about “The Card Player” is how different it looks from Argento films such as “Deep Red,” “Suspiria,” and “Inferno.” The giallo conventions of black gloves and the way suspense builds in relation to the camera are present, but the killings aren’t stylized—at least not in the Argento tradition. There’s no gushing, blinding blood and theatrical lighting is conspicuously absent. With the exception of one scene, victims are not stalked as they usually are in the giallo genre and in Argento films. The production values of “The Card Player” are amazing and such a departure from the dated look of Argento’s older films—even the ones from the late 90s—that you feel you could be watching a film by any European director.
Narratively, though, “The Card Player” is similar to Argento’s previous work. The primary target of torment is a female, and a detective much like Asia Argento’s character, Anna Manni, in “The Stendhal Syndrome.” Secondary characters help the protagonist discover the identity of or escape from a killer that outsmarts the police with little effort. Furthermore, from an ideological angle, incorporating poker as part of the killer’s modus operandi is consistent with the role of the social and cultural motifs from Argento’s earlier films. Unfortunately, “The Card Player” does not focus adequately on its antagonist. We don’t get to see him usurp our gaze or cruelly attack our psychological identification with the other characters. It’s as if Argento deliberately prevents us from getting too emotionally involved. Even after taking into account the bloodless violence depicted on and off-screen in this film, it is difficult to become deeply attached.
When commercially successful directors reach a certain point in their careers, they have the option of making a movie not for the audience but for themselves. If “The Card Player” is any indication, Argento has arrived at a place where there is room for some experimentation. He subdues his unique style, delves into uncharacteristic aesthetic choices, and it doesn’t matter if nobody likes what he’s done. Whether or not he should continue exploring is entirely up to your subjective preference. Argento makes a relatively convincing argument in favor of it in one of the special feature documentaries. I miss over-the-top Dario, but I recommend (renting) “The Card Player” just for the scene where the medical examiner (Luis Molteni) tap-dances and later launches into an operatic performance. It’s too cute.