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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6 Responses

  1. What screenwriting book or website tells you that the midpoint is supposed to find our hero at his lowest? I’ve learned that should happen late in Act Three (Neo dies, “Jack” is tied and held at gunpoint by Tyler Durden, to cite two superior scripts with which we’re both familiar).

    I would say the cop beatdown surely represents a lower point than Mike’s embarrassment in moot court. Mike has just lost all his money and momentum toward paying back Gramma and KGB. And although he’s not weighed down by Worm anymore, he’s still lost his whole reason for putting his life on the line. Now, he has no way out except to risk everything playing the man who has already proved a superior poker player by taking him for everything he had and sending him into early retirement at the beginning of the story.

    The way to think about the midpoint, I’ve read and believe, is as the moment when the stakes are raised and bridges are burned — and that’s just what the moot court scene is all about. Mike loses his way out (career in law) and loses his substitute love interest (the girlfriend), freeing and forcing him to return to his real love interest (Worm).

    But I agree that the third act lets us breathe a little too easily. In the final heads-up game, he’s pretty much rolling and THEN he discovers KGB’s tell. I’ve always thought he should be on his way to the gallows before that moment.

    And I never, for a minute, thought that Gretchen Mol was for real.

  2. OK, Mr. Marshall has it right, I think. The “all is lost” moment does indeed come during Act Three.

    Anyway, nothing illustrates our devotion to the rule of three quite like the way we have come to understand screenwriting. “Movies happen in three acts — a beginning, a middle, and an end, each separated by distinct turning points. Oh, and there’s an inciting incident ten pages in that propels the story forward. And there’s another point in the middle of the second act that raises the stakes and really divides the movie into before and after. Finally, there are those couple of moments after the plot climax where the hero overcomes his emotional and psychological obstacle. But three acts — no more, no less!”

    • I read Marshall’s take as confirming mine:

      “Act 2b [meaning, after the midpoint] begins when your protagonist’s worst fears nearly come true.” The midpoint’s that gut-check when it seems like all is lost.

      I agree with you, however, that there also needs to be a similarly dire moment in Act 3. This is when Cosmo twigs to Martin and Liz’s scam in Sneakers, for instance.

  3. […] to the white man. Hernandez did not make many movies, but he was fortunate enough to appear inHigh Society (1956) – … were quietly confident and emotionally intelligent men who found their way in society without […]

  4. […] to think they know one or two things about. We’ve all picked up a few trivia from watching Rounders or the World Series of Poker, or from losing money at smoky tables in college. We know about the […]

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