Double Down South 2024 Movie Review
Poolroom contests have been material for memorable films, notably The Hustler (1961), pitting Paul Newman against Jackie Gleason; and its sequel, The Color of Money (1986), matching Newman’s character against the upstart played by Tom Cruise. Joining those ranks is Double Down South, a superbly acted and produced indie from writer-director Tom Schulman (Dead Poet’s Society). The film pits Diana (Lili Simmons) against a rogues’ gallery of rough men, culminating in her contest with Beaumont (Justin Marcel McManus).
Why is pool a successful subject for cinema? Think about it: the extreme focus of the players, the tense moments of concentration before silence is broken by the crack of the cue against the balls, the anticipation. The first of Double Down South’s unique twists is its focus on a keno variant that involves landing balls into holes on a board at the far end of the pool table.
Set in rural Georgia, 1998, Double Down South opens with Diana’s arrival at a remote gambling den. Concealed at the end of a broken road in the woods, the hayseed clip joint is housed in a gone-to-seed Greek Revival mansion, a dilapidated Graceland with a jukebox, an endless stock of cheap bottled beer and pool rooms where the stakes are always high. The cops are paid to look the other way even as they watch matchups that draw contenders from across the Confederacy.
Diana is a mystery woman; her arrival baffles the bubba subculture where the male gaze is undisguised and odious. Cool and strangely determined, she barely bothers to roll her eyes at the sexist antics of men who can’t believe she’s really better at pool than them. She serves as a feminist heroine, but something about her says that being the Billie Jean King of billiards isn’t her primary motive.
The gambling ring is dominated by a dead-eyed, stone-faced man, Big Nick (Kim Coates), who carries a sharp stick and wields it when disobeyed or even annoyed. Diana learns early on that Big Nick runs his narrow circle of hell by his own erratically enforced rules. Violence simmers on his front burner and the pot can boil over at any moment. Diana befriends the teenage orphan Little Nick (Igby Rigney), a Dickensian character, an errand boy with no prospects but dreaming of a better life.
The terse dialogue is often hardboiled. “Where you from?” Big Nick demands. “Around” is all Diana will answer. Recognizing her skills, he hires her for room, board and a split of the take. However, she’s a shark with her own code. She won’t hustle greenhorns, “not unless there’s some kind of justice in it,” she insists.
Racial tension enters the picture when Beaumont, a Black pool champ, begins to win some serious money. Big Nick’s contempt is barely restrained until, amid recriminations about rigging the table, Nick and his boys beat Beaumont and nearly kill him. When Beaumont returns, with a full posse in tow for security, he must pass under the Confederate flag Big Nick runs up the pole. Is Diana, the story’s protagonist, playing for the wrong team?