The Gambler stars Mark Wahlberg as a gambling addict. He doesn’t know when to hold ‘em or fold ‘em. He’s chasing that next payout, sinking more and more money into his habit, unable or unwilling to quit. The movie starts in an underground casino where he’s stuck to the blackjack table. At one point he’s up tens of thousands, but quickly sinks back in the red. He now owes six-figures in debt to some shady characters, some of them lurking about this very establishment. He’s given an ultimatum: pay up in 7 days or he’ll risk, at best, certain death. This is the start of an addiction drama and character study crossed with a glum thriller about a man who’s dug himself a mighty deep hole and can’t help but keep digging, hoping against hope he’ll find a way out.
In this reworking of Karel Reisz’s James Caan-starring 1974 film of the same name, screenwriter William Monahan gives us a good understanding of the man’s life. He’s an English professor who resents his nonstarter novelist career. He bitterly tells a class his mantra: “If you’re not a genius, don’t even bother.” He comes from a wealthy family, but his recently deceased grandfather (George Kennedy) left him nothing in the will and his socialite mother (Jessica Lange) has cut him off. He’s a man born into privilege who has just about exhausted its supply. He’s smart, published, has a good job and makes decent money. He just so happens to be in over his head, owing more than he could possibly scrape together in a week. The movie tightens the grip of this scenario, counting down the days, watching as every lucky break leads him to relapse, gambling away much needed cash. Dangers creep closer.
This is one of Wahlberg’s best performances. He’s playing a tired, frustrated, unhappy person, a man of talent and intelligence who has long since given in to his worst habits and tendencies. Wahlberg is one of those actors easy to miscast because, though he has plenty of skill, it’s in a narrow range. He’s perfect with goofy charm or eager determination in his great roles – Boogie Nights, Three Kings, The Other Guys, Pain & Gain – but easily goes wrong in a part that doesn’t ask for those attributes. Here he plays depression and addiction with stillness and hollowed out blank stares. Wahlberg constantly appears exhausted, a tad disheveled, a little out of breath. Addiction has taken its toll. Bad decisions beget bad decisions. He’s finally backed himself into a corner. He wears the burden of depression and anxiety heavily, compensating with sarcasm masked as truth telling and moping. It’s a glossy star vehicle with a deliberate pace, and his weary presence owns it, but for the moments he turns over to the supporting cast.
We meet his black market creditors, a diverse but menacing bunch played by a fine collection of character actors. There’s a grandfatherly soft-spoken Korean (Alvin Ing), a chummy but deadly gangster (Michael K. Williams), and a scary deep-pockets moneyman (John Goodman as a bald, glowering mountain of intimidation). In between nervous one-on-one confrontations with the dark side of his life, he’s back in his respectable teaching career. We see him meet with students both troubled (Anthony Kelley) and promising (Brie Larson, making the most of the film’s worst aspect which makes her a clichéd object, pure feminine ideal symbolizing a light in the darkness). But mostly his students are bored as he prattles on, lecturing on literature as his troubles lurk in the back of his mind. This lurking infects the filmmaking, every catchy rock song on the soundtrack abruptly cut off by the next development.
A slick, steady, confident film, The Gambler is the third feature from Rupert Wyatt. His previous directorial effort resurrected the Planet of the Apes franchise (with Rise of the…). He’s used the clout earned there to make a muscular studio drama, a lean, tough, modest little self-contained character-driven thriller built out of crackling conversations and sharp, writerly dialogue. The screenplay is wordy and tense. No one talks like this, but isn’t that one of the pleasures of the movies? Characters here are always ready to hold forth on life philosophies and armchair psychiatric opinions of each other. Scenes of talky negotiation and high-stakes gamesmanship create a picture of a man who’s smart enough to know better, is well aware of that flaw, and gambles on his ability to get out of trouble anyway. It’s involving to watch the plot develop, humming along its downbeat groove until the last bets are made and the results are in.