“I need to know what you are worth when I leave you nothing.”
These are the parting words that Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is left with from his dying grandfather. At first these words may seem a bit harsh but after the more time we spend with Bennett we start to understand the grandfather’s intentions. The Gambler, a remake of the 1974 film with same title, follows Bennett along his downward spiral as his gambling addiction drags him down to the point where death is imminent, yet death seems to be the escape Bennett so desperately craves. In other words this is not exactly the film you watch to get into the holly jolly spirit of the holidays.
Wahlberg steps into the role of college professor by day and terrible gambler by night with the kind of gusto I quite frankly didn’t think he had in him anymore. The role of Jim Bennett isn’t simply a well-crafted character but instead a role Wahlberg was born to play. What is most shocking about this performance is that there is just about nothing likeable about Bennett. His self-destructive gambling habits seem to be motivated by nothing more than being born over privileged, and when he is given chances to be bailed out from his debts he simply manages to squander the money away whether it be at a Black Jack table or a Roulette wheel. But just like the brutal head on collision you can’t look away from on the highway, we can’t look away from the impending implosion that Bennett is walking into as he racks up debts with numerous heavy hitting criminals around town.
Bennett has a week to pay off his tab of 240,000 though Bennett seems to have no desire to have his debt wiped away; instead he seems to be toeing along a suicidal path only he is too afraid to do the deed himself. It’s over the course of the week Bennett seems to make a break through with some of his students, Amy (Brie Larson) a hungry writer that is in on Bennett’s after hour secrets, and Lamar (Anthony Kelley) a struggling student that is a rising star on the court. It’s these interactions with the students that bring life into this very glib afterhours lifestyle and manage to shine some hope into Bennett’s life.
I haven’t seen the original film that this was based off of; though this is something I plan on remedying as soon as I can. But beyond the great performance that Wahlberg delivers I couldn’t help but appreciate the look and the style of the film. Too many films seem to want to glamorize this reckless life style and make it seem fun and exciting, though what director Rupert Wyatt gives us is only a glimpse at this ugly world that exists in the dark alleys and behind locked doors that no one should go looking. Wyatt presents a dark underworld that simply reeks of violence but yet there is very little violence even depicted in the film, and when there is violence well let’s just say Bennett has had it coming for a long time.
With actors like John Goodman, Michael Kenneth Williams, Richard Schiff and Jessica Lange filling roles throughout the film is a caliber at which you don’t see often enough in these gritty hard boiled films. This is a film that has an attitude about it where it knows it’s a good film but this isn’t the kind of film that will break any records at the box office. For me this is a film that is a little bit of Drive meets Rounders. Neither film was a box office sensation but for those that saw the films and liked them, really like those films. What’s most surprising is this may be one of the best constructed films of the year, this is a film where every scene matters, there is no fat and every dialogue exchange has depth and drives the film in a forward motion. This is where screenwriter William Monahan deserves the most credit, it is not often that a film comes along with no just great dialogue where its characters talking to sound cool, but this is writing that many would be screenwriters should pay attention to.
This is a film that takes away the romanticized notion of all or nothing is ever a good thing. This is a film that digs into the character flaws of people that seem to be obsessed with losing and can’t find happiness until they’ve done more than scraped rock bottom. Jim Bennett does more than scrape rock bottom, he embraces it and despite all those that wish to help him, only he can pull himself free of the darkness. Whether it’s watching Bennett lose hand after hand in a stunning time lapse sequence, or the degrading speeches to his students about how none of them are likely to ever achieve true success, this is a film knows how to get under your skin and frustrate you because it is never easy to just sit back and watch a man destroy themselves. While this may not be my best picture of the year, this is easily one of the more impactful pictures I have seen this year.