Mark Reviews Movies

The Gambler (2014)


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Anthony Kelley, Emory Cohen, Domenick Lombardozzi, Alvin Ing, George Kennedy

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, and for some sexuality/nudity)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 12/25/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2014

There are much quicker and far less convoluted ways to commit suicide than the method chosen by the protagonist of The Gambler, and they don't involve incurring massive debt to three gangsters, juggling the degree of animosity from each of those criminals, throwing away a portion of the family fortune on reckless gambling escapades, or a rigged college basketball game. Some would see a plan this complex as a cry for help, but Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) wastes all of the aid extended to him. The only thing that matters to him is whether or not a decision will somehow further his goal of self-destruction.

He'll take a loan from a gangster as a means to pay back one of the others. When he invariably loses that money by letting the bets ride, he'll take yet another loan from proprietor of the illegal gambling establishment—the one he was supposed to pay off in the first place. He'll take money from his mother (Jessica Lange), especially when she says that it's the last time—a payment to be finished with him. That bag of cash funds a trip to Las Vegas.

At first, Jim seems to be a gambling addict. He cannot stop, and the loans appear to be a way to feed his habit. It's self-destructive behavior, but if it's an addiction, it's unintentionally self-destructive—a side effect of a psychological state over which he has no control.

Later in the film, though, he's unflinchingly honest about his actions, which only makes them more enigmatic. He wants a clean start, free of any and all connections to his current life and the expectations that come with it. He reveals that he, on at least two occasions that he or someone else recalls, has won a million dollars or two at the tables. That's a certain kind of money, one of the gangsters says. That's the kind of money that entitles a person to respond to anyone or anything with two freeing words (The second is "you," so take a stab at the other).

It's the kind of money that can buy a person a clean start, but it's not clean enough for Jim. One character says he's an all-or-nothing kind of guy, and he is.

He knows he can't have it all. There's a limit to how much money he can win from the dealers and the croupiers or borrow from the gangsters. He was once a writer, but upon realizing that he was only producing mediocrity, he quit and became a literature professor at a local college (Wahlberg sells the defeated aspect of the character but not the intelligence, which he attempts to portray by rapidly reciting lectures). The overwhelming majority of his students either won't become great writers or simply don't care about the craft, so what's the point to that?

If Jim can't have it all, he may as well go for nothing. With nothing—no job that he hates, no family fortune, no financial obligations—he can, from a certain perspective, have it all. If he can't get what he wants, well, he won't have to worry about it, because one of those three gangsters will have him killed in a week's time. There's the plot: a ticking clock—as clear and uncomplicated as they come.

It's difficult to "like" Jim in the way that we prefer to commiserate with our heroes. He's too proud, spoiled, and narcissistic for that. It's also tough to dislike but reserve some reluctant respect for him in the way that we prefer to feel toward our anti-heroes. He's too damaged, miserable, and foolish for that option. It is easy, though, to observe this character with a certain degree of fascination. It's enough.

If Jim is inconsistent as a character, at least those inconsistencies come across as quirks of an unbalanced individual. The consistency of the film derives from the world in which it resides. It's a place of imposing shadows in dimly lit casinos, of dilapidated buildings and spas that are permanently or temporarily converted into offices where crime bosses can make their deals, and of abandoned locales where they can exact punishment when those contracts aren't honored.

There is an unwavering predictability to the people with whom Jim becomes entangled. The three gangsters are Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), and Frank (John Goodman). They all operate in the same system and know when Jim owes money to one of their competitors. They also appear to have as much time to contemplate the philosophical nature of their business as Jim has to consider his existential crisis.

As written by William Monahan (adapting James Toback's screenplay of Karel Reisz' 1974 film of the same name), these men aren't mindless thugs but meticulous businessmen with a colorful way with words. Williams is particularly good here as the second least of three evils—a man who wants to escape his life in the same way Jim does but doesn't quite know where to start. Goodman plays the ruthless Frank with an eerie, calm stillness. His inflection is the same when he's talking figures as it is when he's threatening to eradicate Jim's entire bloodline if he doesn't get his money.

There's an ill-fitting romance-of-sorts between Jim and a student played by Brie Larson here, too, and after taking such pains to wrap Jim in a seemingly unbreakable web of complications, the resolution arrives with little fuss. The Gambler isn't too concerned with its plot, though. It's a study of privileged desperation in a world that could not care less about either of those qualities and of a man who wants to use that to his advantage.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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