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John Turturro’s Brilliance Is in the Tiny Moments

It’s a smirk. Or a blink of an eye. Or a whisper. It’s what makes the actor behind ‘Barton Fink,’ ‘Rounders,’ ‘The Night Of,’ and more so good.

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2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

John Turturro’s biggest moments of brilliance, paradoxically, are his smallest moments of brilliance. That’s when he’s at his most powerful, and his most intriguing, and his most compelling, and his most magnificent. It’s when he sits there (or stands there) and absorbs what someone is saying (or yelling) (or singing) and lets out a single smirk, or a slow blink, or a somewhat-annoyed look, or a soft little line that, as soon as he says it, you say to yourself, “OK, well, I’m never going to forget that.” It’s his best trick.

He’s obviously brilliant in other circumstances. Take, for example, the scene when he thinks he’s about to be murdered in the woods in Miller’s Crossing. That’s probably the scene you’d pull up if you wanted to, in as quick a way as possible and as loudly a way as possible, convince someone of John Turturro’s capacity for top-level acting. Or take, for example, the scene in Barton Fink when he mythologizes the common man. That’s probably the scene you’d pull up if you wanted to, in as quick a way as possible and as loudly a way as possible, convince someone of John Turturro’s capacity for weaponizing language. Or take, for another example, the scene in Five Corners when he responds to a dismissal by Jodie Foster by beating a penguin to death with a large stick. That’s probably the scene you’d pull up if you wanted to, in as quick a way as possible and as loudly a way as possible, convince someone of John Turturro’s capacity for bottling a very specific kind of mania. Or take, for example, the scene in The Big Lebowski when he introduces us to Jesus Quintana, his most unstoppably iconic character creation. That’s probably the scene you’d pull up if you wanted to, in as quick a way as possible and as loudly a way as possible, convince someone of John Turturro’s capacity for being an absolute weirdo in absolutely the best way possible.

But to do anything in as quick a way as possible, or as loud a way as possible, would be an affront to Turturro’s slow-cook genius.

There’s a scene in Rounders featuring Turturro that, were I tasked with finding one single moment in his filmography to show how good he is at moving around in the minutiae of a conversation, I would for sure pick.

Rounders came out in 1998. It starred Matt Damon as Mike McDermott, a talented young card player and law student who isn’t quite certain which of those two things he wants to give up in pursuit in the other. Turturro plays a character named Joey Knish, a legendary New York rounder (someone who earns their living playing cards) who Mike appears to respect but secretly sees as a cautionary tale.

Late in the movie, Mike finds himself jammed up pretty good: He owes $15,000 to a very dangerous man and has only a few hours left to figure out where to get the money. He makes a last-minute visit to Knish and asks Knish to lend him some money. Knish, who warned Mike several times about avoiding spots exactly like the one Mike has found himself in, puts on his Dad Voice and begins to chide Mike. “I tell you to play within your means, you risk your whole bankroll,” he says, and you can tell he’s been thinking about this exact conversation for a while. “I tell you not to overextend yourself, to rebuild—you go into hock for more,” he says, as Mike becomes increasingly frustrated. Knish lets his first two sentences sit in the air for a second to make sure that Mike fully feels their weight. Then he continues: “I was giving you a living, Mike,” he says, his words are fat with disappointment. “Showing you the playbook I put together off my own beats. That wasn’t enough for you.”

Mike cuts him off, telling him that he doesn’t need to be disciplined—he only needs money. Knish denies him, and in doing so he takes a cheap shot at Mike’s dream of being a full-time card player in Vegas. Mike, his feelings extremely hurt, decides he’s had enough.

“Hey, I took a risk,” he says, his whole entire demeanor changed. He’s not groveling anymore. He’s the opposite of groveling now. He’s defiant, and offended, and angry. “I took a risk. You? You see all the angles and you never have the fucking stones to play one.”

It’s a shitty comment, and Knish, his whole entire existence being questioned now, loads up his Condescension Cannon and fires it directly at Mike’s forehead.

Stones?” he asks. Look at his face when he says it:

Screenshots via Miramax

Stones?” he asks, and he stares at Mike for a full day, a full week, a full month, a full year, a full decade, before finally finding it in himself to talk.

Stones?” he asks, and his next three words are delivered with so much contempt, with so much disgust, with so much You Gotta Be Fucking Kidding Me-ness, that Knish can barely even be bothered to open his mouth to say them.

“You little punk,” he says, doing so with just enough head movement that it feels a lot like the way firefighters try to hold a firehose still as they spray it on fire, only they can’t all the way because of how powerful the stream is.

It’s perfect. It’s fucking perfect. And it sets up what Knish believes is going to be an absolute beheading: “I’m not playing for the thrill of fucking victory here,” he says. “I owe rent. Alimony. Child support. I play for money. My kids eat. I got stones enough not to chase cards, action, or fucking pipe dreams of winning the World Series [of Poker] on ESPN.”

It’s a wonderful moment in the movie—two fundamentally different characters, at different points in their lives, with completely different outlooks on life in general, each completely sure that the other one is acting either foolishly or cowardly—but it’s an even better example of how Turturro can take just a couple of words and turn them into an entire dissertation, or treatise, or mission statement.

(This sort of thing is also what made 2016’s The Night Of so good. They gave Turturro a bunch of moments when he was able to lean into a word, or a sentence, or a sigh, or a frustrated grunt. It’s one of those situations where every time you rewatch it you notice some new tiny little thing he did.) (This sort of thing is also what made his performance in Do the Right Thing so mesmerizing, in particular the scene when he sits down with Sal and tries to talk Sal into selling the pizzeria. That’d be the second-place finisher here if we were arranging John Turturro’s quiet moments by their level of mastery.)

Immediately after Knish and Mike have their fight, Mike, still hurt that Knish called his aspirations of being a Grade A pro player a pipe dream, calls toward Knish as Knish walks away. When Knish turns around, Mike shares a story with him. He tells him about the time that he bluffed Johnny Chan, a world-champion poker player, off a hand at a casino. He does so as a way to defend himself. “I sat with the best in the world,” Mike says at the end of the story, “and I won.”

They’re only a few feet away from where they were when they fought, and Knish only changes about 10 percent of his expression as Mike talks—but it suddenly feels like they’re in a totally different movie, and like Turturro is playing a totally different character. Look at his face as he listens to Mike to talk:

The difference is small. It’s also, somehow, gigantic.

Somewhere in there—in that area between the two—is Turturro’s best trick.