You know those experiences in the cinema that are memorable for reasons that are difficult to explain? The film has an unusual aura that is hard to place? Its mechanics are so unpredictable, its tone and pacing so well overlaid that any questionable existential showboating or implausible narrative seems irrelevant? The Gambler offers one of those. Find out why after the jump:
There are sequences in this film where the central character – here a largely unsympathetic white man, a passionately unorthodox and unethical lit professor long luxuriating in trust fund wealth – loses enormous amounts of money gambling on blackjack and roulette. The repercussions of his decisions had members of the audience audibly gasping. Myself included.
This man is Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), and outside of his brooding classroom he has a serious addition. In a stylish, incredibly tense early sequence at a blackjack table he blows ten grand, placing him in further debt to the owner of the establishment, Lee (Alvin Ing). He borrows more from a no-nonsense gangster, Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), to play on, but his luck is no better. Given seven days to come up with all the money or be killed, the film begins to tick down as we watch Bennett struggle to contain his addiction, seeming to possess no interest in repaying the money. He turns to his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange), and another loan shark, Frank (John Goodman), to fund his only option – the casino floor. Along the way he starts an affair with one of his students, Amy (Brie Larson) and draws another, an NBA-bound prodigy (Anothony Kelley), into his desperate scheme.
To most, Jim is an alien. Relatable to a very few. But, he sure is fascinating to watch. I sensed a sadness to this film and a tragedy to his self-imposed spiral. There is a fierce commitment to a dark, suicidal tone that I can’t help but admire and feel for. The Gambler, though a remake of a film I haven’t seen, is exciting because it feels so different to anything else out there. I sat in my own world, completely absorbed by this brooding, cynical, havoc-ridden world of an addict so dissatisfied that he is willing to double down over and over again – even if it involves his life.
For better and worse, Jim is honest. He tells his students the harsh reality of the world. No bullshit. When asked if he has the money he owes, having borrowed it from someone else, he doesn’t lie. Here’s a man who is aware of the hole he is in and the danger he has placed those around him, but he doesn’t run away from the truth. He knows he only has one option. He is driven by this philosophy – all or nothing. Risk going into further debt, but giving himself a chance to eliminate it.
Nothing matches the high he gets from facing the danger of losing, and there is something about the pain of losing that seems to excite him, too. We are aligned with a man who believes you either have it all, or you have nothing. A man who firmly believes that you are either a genius in your field or you aren’t. He has come to accept that he will never be the genius that some of his students have the potential to be, but by relying on chance, he might be able to set himself up to not have to ever be concerned about that ever again. He is a man who embraces the polar opposites of that philosophy without emotion, with a dual sense of hope and deep cynicism.
The Gambler is directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes and an underrated prison drama called The Escapist), written by William Monahan (The Departed) and wonderfully shot by Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly) so there’s potential all over it. Monahan’s script is ripe with dynamite dialogue throughout, but isn’t kind to female characters, particularly, and some of the monologues are overwritten. Wyatt keeps this intriguingly off-kilter and the gambling sequences, especially, are brilliantly directed. Fraser’s camera takes us right onto the table for each nail biting each turn of the card, while several set pieces stand out due to their unusual length. As it is a remake of a 1974 film of the same name written by James Toback and starring James Caan, the is New Hollywood throwback all over it from the opening frames.
A leaner-looking Wahlberg, who I was convinced by (though many haven’t been), makes the most of this juicy role, but the whole cast is very good. Williams and Goodman chew up the scenery with glee as the pitiless loan sharks waiting for Jim to self destruct, while a fiery Lange is terrific as Jim’s wealthy mother, bitterly disappointed at having to bail out her son again. Larson is a captivating actress even when she doesn’t say a word (see the otherwise awful Don Jon), but she deserved a better than this role. Her genius as a writer is alluded to with conviction, but her decision-making as a woman doesn’t reflect this intelligence.
While the songs used in the film are individually excellent, I can’t defend their heavy-handed use here. I bet I wasn’t the only one laughing at the use of Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’.
The Gambler has flaws. I can recognise that. But, sometimes a film must push at the boundaries a little and be a bit rough around the edges to be truly memorable. I think The Gambler achieves that. I was thoroughly invested throughout.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Writer: William Monahan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams, John Goodman, Jessica Lange
Runtime: 111 minutes
Release date: Australia: February 5