Fancy a game of… erm, -checks notes-, Keno? Keno is a variation on pool, with a whole lotta wagering going on, and a wooden board that slides over part of the table. The gifted player tries to get certain balls to rest in certain holes at certain times…but fortunately, you don’t need to know how to play Keno to enjoy Tom Schulman’s deliciously deceptive Double Down South, any more than you need a working knowledge of Texas Hold’ Em to enjoy Casino Royale.
Previously known as Southern Gothic, Double Down South is a twisty-turny sports drama that cannily disguises a fairly wicked thriller; if you recognise writer-director Schulman’s name, it’s probably from his Oscar-winning screenplay for Peter Weir’s Dead Poets’ Society, but Double Down South is a leaner, seedier proposition. The super-sinister Nick (the excellent Kim Coates from Sons of Anarchy) runs an illegal keno-parlour from a semi-collapsed plantation mansion in the backwoods; one day Diana (Lili Simmons) arrives at his gatherings, and Nick sees her as a potential honey-trap to help him hustle cash out of the area’s high-stakes keno players, like Beaumont DuBinion (Justin Marcel McManus). Nick has almost a cult-leader status in his household, with a gallery of hangers-on, victims and parasites around him. But who exactly is Diana, where is she actually from, and what are her real motives?
‘Men are better at hitting targets than women’ is the thesis that gets fully destroyed here; Diana is smart and physically adept enough to turn the tables on her adversaries in a satisfying climax. But Double Down South is more than just a female empowerment story; it’s a House of Games-style deception in which just about everyone has an angle, including Little Nick (Igby Rigney), who takes a shine to Diana. In fact, there’s a number of predatory men who take an interest in our heroine, but that’s part of the danger and the design of the story; like Rounders or The Hustler, watching the game itself is less important than watching the players, and the resourceful Diana plays to win in every sense.
Having premiered at Newport Beach International Film Festival last week, Double Down South should go on to a healthy life as a popular mainstream entertainment; it’s got the strong, satisfying character development, sparky dialogue and hairpin narrative you’d hope for in a quality indie movie, and Coates and Simmons both convince as two gamblers who are playing for different stakes. Double Down South isn’t a particularly fashionable film, tackling racism and sexism head on without virtue signalling, but it’s all the better for it; this is a rough, tough confidence-thriller than delivers on tension, and tells an engrossing tale about a sport you probably didn’t know existed.