Published Apr 28, 2011The one constant element of gambling is the element of chance, which is ironically also the element oblivious to most players. The poker players followed in Grinders keep searching for ways to beat the odds, but like life itself, the answers are elusive and the process can be deadening.
One player, lively yet deflated self-described "degenerate" Andre, defines a "grinder" as someone who has no source of income other than playing poker. Losing doesn't mean just paying for the next round, it means potentially not being able to pay rent or buy groceries. The only choice is to keep going until the player is back in the red. Gallagher also follows Danny, a family man with ambitions of becoming a world-class poker player using his underground winnings to compete in high stakes poker tournaments across the country. However, his arrogance and denial of his various addictions start to become his downfall as the film progresses.
Gallagher gives the film a strong emotional arc by making himself one of the grinders covered in the film. His camera is given generous access to the illegal poker clubs in Toronto's east end as Gallagher plays and struggles to maintain a base rate of $500 per day in winnings. Owners make commissions from winning hands, like Lawrence, who runs a club in the east end called The Cincinnati Kid, after the 1965 Steve McQueen classic film about an up-and-coming poker player.
These rooms are not the smoky, dimly lit rooms of backroom gambling folklore; it is a business appearing as legit as any office, but with the quiet desperation of the players unlike any cubicle dweller. The story of Lawrence is the saddest, as he prides himself on running a fair, if illegal game, while his landlord legally yet cruelly extorts him by locking Lawrence out of the club until he can pay more cash.
Like the players, Lawrence thrives on the excitement of organizing a marginally illegal game giving so many men hopes of big scores. However, while Lawrence is not a villainous figure, Lawrence is oblivious to how he enables the "degenerate" lifestyle of men like Andre and by extension, himself.
Gallagher's narration gets increasingly heavy-handed as the film progresses, ruminating over variations of the elements of risk and chance covered through the various character studies. The players are lured by the idea of fast cash without having to resort to the nine-to-five style of grind, but the irony is in how these characters appear so much more stressed, dishevelled and generally unhealthy.
Gallagher grinds to support his newborn baby (along with a second on the way) while he deals with the lack of filmmaking jobs in a post-recession Toronto. By making this film, he combines the grinding of poker with the equally risky grind of being a filmmaker. Unfortunately, this personal arc doesn't come to a head beyond the element of chance in his family life.
The drama never quite comes to a point in Grinders either, as the players more or less stick to their ways without coming to finite resolutions or realizations, other than how grinding sometimes pays and sometimes doesn't. Grinders works best as a small-scale character study of a business just below the surface of legitimacy. (Border City Pictures)