Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is a risk taker. An English professor and a high-stakes gambler, Bennett bets it all when he borrows from gangster Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), offering his own life as collateral. Bennett pits his creditor against the operator of a gambling ring (Alvin Ing) and leaves his dysfunctional relationship with his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange) in his wake. Playing both sides, he immerses himself in an illicit, underground world while garnering the attention of Frank (John Goodman), a loan shark with a paternal interest in Bennett's future. Meanwhile as his relationship with Amy (Brie Larson), one of his students, deepens, Bennett must risk all for a second chance.
Review by Louise Keller:
In its portrayal of the seedy gambling world, Rupert Wyatt's dark crime drama excels; less so in its ability to deliver a satisfying journey for its self-loathing protagonist, albeit effectively portrayed by Mark Wahlberg. From a world originally created by James Tobruk in the 1974 film, screenwriter William Monaghan pieces together the elements. The is engrossing, thought provoking and grimly atmospheric, but its main problem is the lack of appeal of Wahlberg's Jim Bennett, who has no redeeming features other than an esoteric propensity towards an all-or-nothing philosophy. While that may be an interesting exploration, the fact that there is nothing to like about Bennett, reduces our engagement and how much we care about his fate.
It is clear from the outset that Bennett finds life 'a losing proposition'. From the opening scene in which his dying grandfather (George Kennedy) tells him he is not leaving him any of his fortune, we understand that Bennett is struggling to discover what has worth in his life. In particular, he is struggling to discover his own worth and is convinced his own talents are meaningless. Despite coming from a wealthy family, or perhaps because of it, he has a disdainful relationship with money. We are left to contemplate the reason for Bennett's compulsion to gamble.
As an English professor, Bennett deplores mediocrity; as a gambler, he is fearless; as a human being, he is destructive. Much of the time, we are sucked into the shadowy world of the gambling establishments, where Bennett dances with the devil as he tempts fate. If he wins, he reinvests. When he loses, he borrows more. He behaves as though his life is nothing but a ball spinning on life's roulette wheel.
The stakes grow higher as does Bennett's debt. The scene outside the bank, after his mother (Jessica Lange, excellent) has withdrawn enough money to bail out her son, is enough to make any mother squirm. Bennett does emotional cruelty well. Destructive behavior is second nature; the consequences are seemingly irrelevant. There are relationships of sorts with the casino boss (Alvin Ing) and the cut-throat loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams). His relationship with big-time lender (John Goodman), whose girth is as large as his threats, is the most confronting. We glimpse Bennett's relationships with others in his life: his brilliant literature student (Brie Larson), a talented basketball player (Anthony Kelley) and a tennis champ (Emory Cohen), who all figure somewhere in Bennett's plan. Worth noting that the characters of both women in the film (Bennett's girlfriend and mother) are tokenistic. More's the pity.
Technically, there is much to like and the way music and songs are used throughout - being given little tastes - is most effective. As for the payoff, it is better than expected, although after we have stopped caring about the protagonist, it is all a bit of a let down.
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GAMBLER, THE (MA15+)
CAST: Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Omar Leyva, Anthony Kelley
PRODUCER: Robert Chartoff, Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler
DIRECTOR: Rupert Wyatt
SCRIPT: William Monaghan, (James Toback - 1974 film)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Greig Fraser
EDITOR: Pete Beaudreau
MUSIC: Jon Brion, Theo Green
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Keith P. Cunningham
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 5, 2015