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SIFF REVIEW: "Holy Rollers" Follows Christian Card Sharks

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 13, 2011 at 2:31AM

There's a fascinating paradox at the heart of "Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians," and it's right there in the title. In Bryan Storkel's new documentary about the Seattle-based "Church Team" of blackjack players, which premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival this past weekend, players work the system with cunning skill and rake in the dough. At the same time, they make bold claims about the purity of their work and rebuff assumptions that it runs counter to their religion. Storkel makes as little effort to resolve the issue as the players do, giving "Holy Rollers" an intriguingly ambiguous outlook. Whether or not they win becomes secondary to the evaluation of why they even try.
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There's a fascinating paradox at the heart of "Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians," and it's right there in the title. In Bryan Storkel's new documentary about the Seattle-based "Church Team" of blackjack players, which premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival this past weekend, players work the system with cunning skill and rake in the dough. At the same time, they make bold claims about the purity of their work and rebuff assumptions that it runs counter to their religion. Storkel makes as little effort to resolve the issue as the players do, giving "Holy Rollers" an intriguingly ambiguous outlook. Whether or not they win becomes secondary to the evaluation of why they even try.

Not to be confused with the recent Jessie Eisenberg movie of the same name, "Holy Rollers" observes four years in the life of the Church Team while the players routinely discuss their practice. In meetings, interviews and social gatherings, they analyze the thrill of winning and extoll the virtues of their profitable lives. Nobody comes across as a complete ideologue, although their faith provides a constant safety valve: They avoid becoming the image of sleazy hustlers by reminding others of their greater commitment to God. Storkel allows these statements to stand, but it's hard not to look closely at the faces of his subjects and wonder what's going on beneath the surface. These include co-founders Ben Crawford and Colin Jones, who are also credited as producers, which may explain that movie asks good questions but tends to side with the players about the positives of their work.

Although it meanders in parts and sometimes feels too idealistic about its main subjects, the movie packs in a number of compelling mini-stories as it follows the players through a series of ups and down, including significant changes to the team's dynamic. Ben and Colin, both married with children, have the appearance of committed gamblers whose church associations merely come with the territory of their suburban lifestyles. The group mentality of the Church team is a different story.

The players harbor an amusing level of disdain for the casinos they frequent, with one member complaining that they "suck the goodness out of the world." By counting cards, they crack the system of a money-grubbing institution, and relish the task. Storkel shows them wearing ludicrous disguises--including cowboy and Indian costumes--to deceive the casinos that routinely kick them out. Hidden cameras document their frequent expulsions.

While "Holy Rollers" sympathizes with the team's slick ability to pull in thousands of dollars a month, it doesn't gloss over all the details of their lives. A few dramas unfold: One player, a priest, finds his future with the team in question when he hits a losing streak. Another member is accused of thievery. But the majority of the group remains pure, strengthening the movie's thesis that the team's presumed religious loyalties play into their favor. Some even take it a step further, as when an idealistic church-goer asserts that his occupation "serves as a tool of god." However, spirituality reaches a breaking point when the team's leaders question the sanity of teammates who claim the Holy Spirit told them a fellow player has stolen their winnings. That those claims are met with skepticism makes it clear that the convictions of the card sharks in "Holy Rollers" primarily rests in their homegrown talents, not blind faith.

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although unlikely to get much a theatrical release, the movie has a unique enough hook to find a home on television, perhaps on ESPN, where gambling viewers should eat it up.

criticWIRE grade: B+

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