THE GAMBLER Review

The Gambler is one of those movies that is effortlessly cool. It doesn't ever feel like it's trying, but instead that it naturally comes by the virtues that make it appealing. Despite this fact, it is without a doubt the precise intention of director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) that his film, a remake of the 1974 James Toback film starring James Caan, resemble something of a nuanced edge of humanity describing a state of mind more than something of this physical world. It is easy to see why The Gambler is one of those movies you expect to be of little significance as it is a remake of a film that seems well respected and not necessarily in any need of retelling (I haven't seen the original, but the DVD is sitting on my shelf and I'll definitely be giving it a look soon) as well as starring Mark Wahlberg who, as of late, has become a certifiable movie star and so we expect a certain amount of mainstream mentality to seep into each of his projects. Since the dawn of the second decade of the new millennium though, Wahlberg has found and continues to improve upon the path he is taking. With The Gambler he has accepted a challenge in seemingly taking on a more complex role, a lead role where it is not just the actions of his character that drive the plot, but the whole psychology of the character that has to be divulged in order for the narrative to feel even slightly cohesive. The overall goal of our main character, the events that drive this narrative are simple enough (pay off those you owe money to in a weeks time or pay the price), but it is the psychology of getting to that resolution that is the real issue because if it were as simple as getting the money to pay back his debts this movie would be about twenty minutes long. No, this isn't a race against time where Wahlberg's Jim Bennett has to scrounge up enough cash to free himself of his loan sharks thumb, but rather this is about Bennett being able to get to a state of being that lets him be okay with continuing to live, with continuing to win rather than constantly riding the thrill of the loss and hoping for the seeming peace of death.

Amy (Brie Larson) allows Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) to feed his addiction. 
We are introduced to Bennett as he sits in a hospital room with his dying grandfather (George Kennedy). There is nothing between the two that seems hidden as they each drop the bullshit sentimentality of impending death and take the facts of what is happening for what they are. There is an immediate coldness to the atmosphere Wyatt is describing and it sets the tone for what he is looking to do immediately. There is mention of ideas that intend to elicit a passing of the torch scenario, a progression of generations where those who have been grown and discretely groomed should now be ready to take control of the mantle, but this is only our first inclination that Bennett is not ready for his presumed role as he rejects the idea he could ever be the personification of all his grandfather embodies to him. It is an interesting way to set the stage as the rest of the movie essentially tells us why Bennett couldn't ever possibly feel stable enough to assume that persona, but more that he can't fool himself into becoming a man who is defined by career, by name or by anything as cliché as his wealth and success. No, Bennett can't even seem to allow himself the ideas of clichés that are intended to make him feel alive and instead chooses to analyze everything to the point of questioning what the point of anything is. This brings him to the idea and state of mind that the consequences of his actions don't matter and come what may, he'll either continue living or he'll finally be granted that peace he longs for, but can't seem to reward himself with. Bennett is in deep with Mister Lee (Alvin Ing) who runs something of an underground gambling establishment (like, $240,000 deep) and he can't stop feeding his need to feel the thrill of losing big. As much as he likes to have the satisfaction of winning, that feeling of being right, being lucky but more than lucky because the win was destined to be blessed upon him, it is the thrill of losing it all that really feels like a rush. In attempting to pay Lee back within his seven day deadline Bennett also borrows money from Neville Barka (Michael K. Williams) and Frank (John Goodman) plunging himself deeper into debt and thrillingly placing the odds against himself.

Wahlberg, for all intents and purposes, seems to have a firm grasp on perspective and the understanding that he will not always be the Mark Wahlberg we see him as now. He understands that he will not be able to play roles such as the mid-thirties literary professor who has a fling with one of his students forever. He understands this and in The Gambler he strangely accepts this fate that time places upon us all by putting on display not his physicality, but his willingness to be a thoughtful, insightful and inherently intelligent man while offering the duality of perceived identities. We won't be who we are in this moment forever, we won't even think the same way we do now in ten years and so to try and understand a person completely is to categorize them which neither Bennett nor Wahlberg want for themselves. As a college professor one might expect such a man with a pedigreed title, an abundance of knowledge who, not to mention, also comes from a wealthy family to have it all together, but as we know from the life Jim is living when we first meet him this isn't the case. Instead, he is a man learning his lessons by night and teaching them by day. He is a man who was given the silver spoon, who had the world at his feet and decided to do nothing more with it than create every piece of trouble in his life for himself. He desires to "dance with the devil for some unknown reason," as Goodman's character puts it and in that line of thinking we realize that as much as the film is suggesting who this man is to us it is leaving it up to us to decide who he really is. We are naturally inclined to root for the protagonist, but is there enough justification for his actions that we should wish Wahlberg's character well or is he in fact nothing more than a spoiled rich kid who creates drama for the sake of drama? Either way you come down on it, the resounding truth would seem to be that Wahlberg delivers one of his better performances and not for the way in which he necessarily inhabits the character in an unrecognizable fashion, but instead that he so easily makes this decision ours and not his.

Bennett reluctantly borrows money from his mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange).
What I love most about this film though, besides the ambiguity of William Monahan's screenplay, is the overall style of the piece. Wyatt has created a labored tone that always feels as if it is saying more than we're understanding. He places the gray color palette over his west coast setting and lets the framing of his shots do the talking for him. Again, it feels effortless yet in each shot you can see Wyatt striving to elicit more from it, you can feel the need not only to be sleek and precise, but for the substance to carry through in the reasoning it was shot this certain way and that care comes through in spades in the final product. Wyatt really knows how to nail tone (how else did a monkey speaking feel so breathtaking rather than silly?) and he demonstrates that to full effect here as everything from the mannerisms of Wahlberg to the way he so unabashedly loves the natural appeal of Brie Larson's bone structure give the audience a sense of where we're at with these characters in their every step. Speaking of Larson, she is fine in the role of an exceptional college student that Bennett not only singles out as his most promising pupil of this given year, but who also knows the other side of her professor most are not privy to. It is only in Larson's inherent charm that we buy the credibility of all we are being told about Amy while her presence ultimately serving as Bennett's reason for redemption feels a bit unearned. Goodman is always reliable and is no exception here as his intimidating Frank is anything but modest and serves up the realities of savagery to Bennett on a silver platter. The same could be said of Michael K. Williams who brings certain undertones to the shady character he is asked to portray, but not really convey as Neville's outward persona is that of another personality. I was immediately intrigued by the presence of Jessica Lange and appreciated the spitfire chemistry between her and Wahlberg despite the film only hinting around and never touching directly on the fracture in their relationship.

To all of that, The Gambler is not really a film about winning or losing, but is instead a study of addiction and talent. Bennett believes you're naturally given the skill to excel at something, that greatness and excellence cannot be learned or earned, but rather it is the decision of nature while nurturing can do nothing more than maybe emphasize those talents. He believes he has a modicum of talent that has been stretched too far for too long and has thus given up on himself and turned to the one thing that might still offer him a win, a chance to reside above others by way of perceived skill in his gambling. It is a worthy question as to if Bennett even really knows who he is any more given the countless ideologies floating around in his head conflicting with one another, but he likely doesn't deal in absolutes either and so he is at least open to whatever may come of his freedom that his lack of talent has afforded him. Because he is the character we follow we want Bennett to come out on the good side of things and Wyatt's film almost ends perfectly in that it would have allowed the audience to continue to decide for themselves what this man deserves, but he betrays that trust in the end making it more about the clichéd and safe resolution that Bennett, the lit professor, would have scoffed at and Bennett, the gambler, would have never taken a bet on.