Bald and twitchy, Drazen (John Ventimiglia) struts through the urban jungle of New York City as if he owns the place. As the lead character in Nick Sandow's Ponies, Drazen dominates every single scene with the kind of sweaty presence that brings to mind '70s-era De Niro and Pacino. Part of what makes the film interesting is how Sandow and Batistick, who adapted his own play, slowly reveal Drazen's true colors over time, building his serpentine character by juxtaposing his initial façade of good will with his increasingly damning betrayals of supposedly close friends. While he's the kind of snake who "burns bridges," as one close friend puts it, just to get a two-dollar win ticket down on the latest horse race, the film constantly asks us to see Drazen as man and not a complete bastard, a task that grows more difficult as Ponies progresses.
A specialist in manipulation, something that must have come in handy during his journey from Croatia to New York City, Drazen hangs out in an Off-Track Betting parlor, gambling away the small monetary scraps he can muster by conning his friends into lending him money. At one point, he confesses to a fellow handicapper, "I have a major fucking gambling problem, so bear with me." Obviously unemployed, something the OTB cashier (Tonye Patano) points out during one of their many verbal fisticuffs, Drazen spends his day talking shit about other ethnicities, even revealing to fellow immigrants Ken (Babs Olusanmokun) and Wallace (Kevin Corrigan) that he married a "fat" American just to get his green card. With his mixture of arrogance, entitlement, and obliviousness, Drazen becomes a striking example of the American dream gone wrong.
Unfortunately, Ponies never distinguishes itself as engaging cinema apart from Drazen's vile charisma and a few dynamic dialogue sequences, which one has to attribute more to Ventimiglia's performance and Batistick's tight script. Sandow attempts to complicate Drazen's subtext with flashbacks and jump cuts, but these needless aesthetic flourishes simply convolute certain narrative subplots. But once Ponies becomes more theatrical in its final act, the film finds an increasingly tense groove. In one taut moment inside the cramped OTB, Ventimiglia's chameleon-like character shifts on a dime, turning an incriminating situation completely around on one of his fellow immigrant friends, utilizing post 9/11 angst and fear for his own survival. By the end, Ventimiglia's shifty performance and Olunsanmokun's sincere humanity transcend all of the film's feeble, transparent attempts at kinetic cinema.
Ultimately, this failure to adapt the source play to a new medium in interesting ways is what's most disappointing about Ponies. The film is never thematically inert, as both Drazen and Ken represent polar opposite experiences of endurance in a modern-day American landscape seamlessly pushing immigrants to the fringes. But it doesn't go far enough in expanding their conflict into the outside world. Sandow explores an incendiary moment when these two character's identities clash together, but a moment is not nearly enough to do either man justice.