In the opening moments of The Gambler Mark Wahlberg’s Jim Bennett is inconsolable alongside the hospital bed of his dying grandfather Ed (George Kennedy). As the tears run down his face and he’s being antagonised because ‘missing him’ isn’t going to be satisfactory for Ed. He curses Jim (Wahlberg) with the phrase (something along the lines of) “you’re me now, if you’ll have it.” Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and writer William Monahan’s (The Departed) adaption of the 1974 film of the same name takes us as a passenger for onetime author, now literary Professor Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) and his extracurricular existence as a gambler on a nihilistic run towards rock bottom.
Mark Wahlberg as Jim Bennett, apart from the obvious physical transformation, is virtually unrecognisable from the action hero performances that have slowly multiplied across his resume. Articulate, apathetic, nihilistic; these are characteristics called for in Jim that are refracted through an uncontrollable despondency. It’s a most mature and cerebral performance from Wahlberg who really touches the greatness as an actor that he has only touched in Boogie Nights and The Departed. There are moments though, at the height of Jim’s struggle, where it’s apparent that he’s in a prison of his own mindset as much as indebted to mortally serious individuals. The Gambler treads awfully close to drowning in a pool of its own pretentiousness; however then we’re introduced to the one and only John Goodman, playing Frank.
Goodman’s Frank is like a proximity mine for the bullshit and the pretence with which Jim allows himself to be intoxicated. From the moment that his gluttonous and mountainous Frank introduces himself to Jim with a grade A character assassination you may find yourself sitting further forward in your seat. There aren’t many actors that can so comfortably chew over huge chunks of didactic monologuing while being able to remain engaging, that is precisely the genius of Goodman.
Anthony Kelley’s Lamar Allen is a time bomb. For the whole first half of the film you’re lead to believe that he’s nothing but jock airhead; there but by the grace of the University’s Basketball program, so-to-speak. In one of Jim’s defeated moments he challenged Lamar to understand why he’s in the class at all. Just as Craig Robinson’s door man became the voice of reason of Leslie Mann’s Debbie in Knocked Up, dropping insight left and right, this young man shows a pained awareness of his trajectory (and broadly the arc of an athlete) in such a way that Jim cannot help but pause to reflect. Brie Larson’s is wonderful as the prodigious Amy Phillips. She’s put on the spot by Jim as the one with the overwhelming responsibility that she’s showing true potential in writing in such a way that you might think of a Shakespeare. Her presence is a kind of torture that forces Jim to attempt to alienate her in order to keep her at arm’s length. There’s an undeniable chemistry between the two characters that Jim must avoid to keep up this ennui. These students become the lighthouse in this storm guiding the way. Jessica Lange is a formidable matriarch as Jim’s mother Roberta. There’s so much that’s only alluded to as to why Jim feels hell bent on doing something heinous enough to be excommunicated. Lange has the presence, the poise and the venomous eyes that tell you the entire story.
Michael Kenneth Williams’ Neville Baraka is suave and outwardly sophisticated money (and muscle) drawn to Jim’s flare. Baraka wants to elevate himself to a position where he commands the respect of Lee and Frank and yet Jim’s frustratingly flippant attitude to the consequences of getting Baraka offside or being in his debt you see that he quickly comes back down to the level (high order violence and manipulation) that he’s comfortable.
Alvin Ing’s Mister Lee is an empathetic figure in this underworld. He looks at Jim as if he’s snapshot in time of an earlier and stupider time of his life. The great common thread between Baraka (Williams) and Lee (Ing) is that you can see that they’re so transfixed by the phosphorescent attraction of Jim’s method; where in comparison Frank (Goodman) sees Jim’s carelessness as a parasitic insult. In case the preceding gush didn’t articulate, Wyatt and his troupe, assemble a set of captivating performances.
William Monahan relishes updating James Toback’s source material (that is purported to be autobiographical). What’s striking is that it simultaneously feels like it’s been ripped from the New Hollywood existential crisis that surrounded Vietnam and Watergate; while encapsulating the quandary of a modernity at a time when the access to the cumulative knowledge of the human existence only further problematizes the problem of qualifying meaning in an increasingly scientific and godless view of the universe. In huge scenes we watch Jim (Wahlberg) take centre stage in his auditorium and try and impose his appropriated world view of all or nothing onto the impressionable minds that are in front of him. And when we’re in the gambling establishments the exposition is replaced with monosyllabic barked orders to initiate the rapid rise and fall of money. It’s hit or stay, all in or fold, and thus life is either lived at the speed of sound or breaking apart into a fire debris.
Wyatt, now a director and once a cinematographer, is so adept at creating a view of Los Angeles that feels a fringe as the niche community that we’re following. Tracking through the innards of the catacombs of these hives of high stakes is contrasted with beautifully composed silhouettes stalking through and soaking up the terrain. Wyatt also makes great use of incidental music to score the proceedings that fade away as their source is interrupted.
Rudyard Kipling, in his seminal poem ‘If’ provided the following one of many scenarios as a measure to whether you’re a man:
“If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss…”
The Gambler is about the lure to triumph over potential disaster and finding a way to “treat those two imposters the same.” The existential angst of The Gambler remains unresolved, and Wyatt, Monaghan and Wahlberg grapple with it like men.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Written by: William Monahan based on the screenplay of the 1974 film of the same name by James Toback
Starring: Mark Wahlberg , Jessica Lange, Anthony Kelley, Steve Park, Emory Cohen, Brie Larson, George Kennedy, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alvin Ing, Andre Braugher, Domenick Lombardozzi, John Goodman, Richard Schiff