The Gambler (2014)

Preamble

I had another blog-type of thing before, and, oddly, the writing I had up there that got the most traffic over time was a series of posts I wrote about the 2014 remake of The Gambler, directed by Rupert Wyatt and starring Mark Wahlberg. Each post began exactly the same way, and in the series I tried to lay out the different things I loved about the movie, which got (and still suffers from) absolutely terrible reviews.

Since the content had seemingly found some unknown audience, I decided to go ahead and port it over to this new site. I suspect there's a surprising amount of value in really nailing any given niche, even when it's as tiny as this one.

What was previously a post is now separated within this text with a numbered heading. Little to no edits have been made beyond this reflow-ed structure, however, aside from some essential technical changes that hopefully won't impact anything too much.

Enjoy, and you should definitely watch the film if you haven't yet!

1. Film introduction

No one will ever convince me that the 2014 remake of The Gambler[1] isn't the greatest movie ever made.

Don't think there aren't many people who would like to try. At the time of writing the movie stands with a 6/10 rating on IMDB[2] and a truly brutal 44% on Rotten Tomatoes.[3] It seems to have fared about as well as you'd expect it to if it was a film about a well-educated wealthy white male who gambles away both his own fortune and a sizable chunk of his family's—with no apparent remorse whatsoever—only to learn nothing and instead initiate an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student and escape his predicaments through a combination of rigging a sports bet by corrupting a promising athlete into throwing a game and making up the balance with blind luck in an outrageous bet... which is exactly what it is.

Jim Bennett isn't an incredibly sympathetic protagonist. As Frank puts it in the actual movie itself:

Birth, education, intelligence, talent, looks, family, money... has all this been some real comprehensive fucking burden for you?

...And to top it off, the movie is basically entirely talking! When it was (by all appearances) marketed as an action movie![4]

"I am of the universe, and you know what it's worth."

It's worth plenty.

The fact that the remake of The Gambler was received so poorly might actually make me love it more in some ways.

The thing is, movies are expensive to make.[citation needed] Movies are expensive to make, and the major studios that make them are all divisions of publicly traded corporations that are legally obligated to try to squeeze out whatever money can be found by making them. That means limiting risk, that means making films that internationalize well, that means 3 super hero pseudo-sequels inside a shared cinematic universe every single year. Even all the way from New York, NY, we can see how Hollywood, CA changes[5] when a Fast and the Furious sequel can make $400,000,000 in China alone and suddenly Dwayne Johnson has Jack Nicholson's floor seats for the Lakers.[6]

The Gambler was a risk though. A genuine, honest-to-God risk that didn't even totally pay off. It's unapologetically wordy, entirely based in reality, deals with existential issues, relies on strong but often subtle acting, and has an overall sense of craftsmanship that's hard to find in major studio films. It's niche. To me, the fact that it ended up being unpopular is just a testament to it actually having a vision and not being some focused-grouped-to-hell bullshit. The Gambler takes a stand and was punished for it, but no one can ever pull a Brie Larson and ask its creators "did you make this because you believed in it or because you thought this was what people wanted?"

Wikipedia says[7] The Gambler's director Rupert Wyatt "made his directorial début with the 2008 film The Escapist" before proceeding to actually make money by directing 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes---a classic Sundance-to-riches success story. I think you see a lot of Wyatt's indie sensibilities on display in The Gambler, (a friend of mine once said it's like someone made a Sundance film with a major Hollywood budget,) something which actually ties in well with its thematic content and ethos. After all, "who wants the world at their feet? It's confusing isn't it?"

A classroom full of students who don't give a fuck

The most niche thing about The Gambler (and what I love about it the most) is that it's a movie for creative people. It's for people who feel like they could yell as loud as they want and nobody cares. It culminates in Wahlberg's climactic monologue to Larson, which (personally) didn't just strike close to home for me, it cut straight to my heart:

You know there was a student—just the other day—who said that my problem (if one's nature is a problem, rather than just fucking problematic) is that I see things in terms of victory or death, and not just victory but total victory. It's true. I always have.

I mean it's either victory or don't bother. I mean, the only thing worth doing is the impossible, right? Everything else is fucking grey.

I mean you're born as a man with the nerves of a soldier, the apprehension of an angel, so lift a phrase, but there's no fucking use for it. Here? Where's the use for it? What, you're set to be a philosopher or a king or fucking Shakespeare, and this is all they give you? This? What, twenty-odd years of schooling—which is all instruction in how to be ordinary, or they'll fucking kill you—and they fucking will! ...Y'know, and then it's a career, which is just not the same thing as existence, so...

I want unlimited things. I want everything. I want a real fucking love, a real fucking house, a real fucking thing to do, everyday, and I just... I'd rather die if I don't get it.

In my experience, people tend to diverge sharply on their reaction to that speech. Some people (like me) feel like they can really relate to it... And then there's a large group of other people who are more inclined to say it's one of the craziest things they've ever heard.

There's a quote from an Eddie Huang story[8] that I think speaks to the same kind of perception:

No matter what a stripper tells you, there are two types of people in this world. There are those who take the world at face value, keep the computers putin’, and don’t know to feel otherwise. The other type of person in this world has seen something wicked and the rest of their life is spent reconciling that vision against their existence.

I think that creative mindset (or instinct, or whatever) is both a real thing and only present in a minority of the world's population. A strong majority of people really are fine just "keeping the computers putin'", and it's always tough to genuinely feel different from everyone else around you. To that end, I would say the thing I appreciate most about The Gambler (and the thing I'd always want to bring up first) is that it feels like a genuinely very helpful movie.

It was for me, at least.

2. Aesthetics

No one will ever convince me that the 2014 remake of The Gambler[9] isn’t the greatest movie ever made.

The first thing I always try to explain about The Gambler is that it's really a movie made for creative people. That's easy to say, but maybe not easy to convince someone of, so let's dig into it a bit more.

Maybe I enjoy the show

I remember the first time I saw the film was at an Alamo Drafthouse in Ashburn, VA—a sleepy neighborhood I didn't know at all, about a 45 minute drive from where I was living at the time. My girlfriend and I would make the trek out for occasional date nights, and I really appreciated how out-of-the-way it felt. The drive back, in particular, would usually be after 1am (late for the DMV, outside of Friday/Saturday night bars and clubs) along a nearly-empty beltway with enough time to let any given movie really sink in.

I remember making this journey back from the theater after the movie, and before I ever thought too much about why the film's themes resonated with me, I just kept thinking about how incredibly striking it was.

In a post-Loving Vincent[10] world the "every frame a painting" adage might feel a little overwrought, but it's hard to find a single camera shot in The Gambler that isn't gorgeous. The cinematography relishes in interesting compositions that the main characters have a small presence in, along with varied, contrasting colors, and a strong sense of the environment for any given scene.

Even within the repeated setting of Jim Bennet's lecture hall, framing and lighting are manipulated to emphasize the warmth between Wahlberg's character and Larson's as well as the shared frustration with the world that connects Jim Bennet and Lamar Allan.

The creative shot composition doesn't just help the movie stand out aesthetically, either. This idea is something I want to revisit later, but all the main characters in the film are singular within their worlds, and the tendency of the movie to minimize their actual form on-screen emphasizes that.

Even in crowded scenes like the casinos, The Gambler prefers to let its main characters fall into the background of obscured shots rather than force a framing where they pop out to the camera more. The creative discipline to it is both unusual and terribly effective.

Seven days

The writing in The Gambler was just as striking to me as its visual aesthetic, and while the monologues are an obvious discussion point here, the creative discipline to some of the dialog is worth mentioning as well. Alvin Ing absolutely crushes his role, for instance, but part of that is capturing a very restrained sense of menace to the elder mobster that is Mr. Lee. His ultimatum to Bennet isn't gratuitous, he just wants his money in seven days... period.

In The Gambler the writing isn't just good in an abstract sense, it's actually good screenplay writing that gives the actors room to bring in their own energy. It might not be obvious why "I don't fucking want to do that shit" is a great line, but that's only when you haven't seen Michael Williams destroy the screen with it:

Of course, the other part of what makes the movie's writing so great are the times when it does simply go in, no holds barred. Goodman's last monologue is a great example of that—it's funny and clever while also being incredibly brazen and insensitive in a way that an actual mobster would be.

Got by talent, imagine that

I think some of what I appreciate as craftsmanship is exactly what kept The Gambler niche. What's "striking" to me feels overblown or even melodramatic to other people. Which is fine. I aim to be a man for all seasons, not all things to all people, and I appreciate others—and especially works of art—that do the same.

The sense of of a determined aesthetic present in the movie, though, is something that I think is indisputable. People might wish it pursued something different with the same enthusiasm, but the creative drive can't be waved away.

I think for creative people, though, the drive to bring a creative vision to life without compromise—regardless of what that vision actually is—is more respectable than anything else. In every field, professionals recognize other professionals before any other judgements, and The Gambler is unabashedly artsy in a way that people of the same make can empathize with.

The Gambler is for creative people, and the first mark of that is in its aesthetics and mechanics.

3. "Success"

No one will ever convince me that the 2014 remake of The Gambler[11] isn’t the greatest movie ever made.

The first thing I tried to talk about with The Gambler is that it's a movie made for creative people, something I elaborated on while focusing on the film's aesthetic qualities. I think an unfortunate truth about it, though, is that it's also a movie for successful people—the ideal audience being both successful and creative, which is a tragically small niche.


A fairy story about a fight with a fucking monster

I linked John Goodman's excellent last monologue in part 2 of this series, but it's a really important point of synthesis for the film so bear with me while I revisit it.

It starts out with Frank brushing on his perceptions of and experiences with alcoholism—doing so, naturally, with a brutal frankness (Frank-ness?) that will continue on for the rest of the scene:

Frank

You drink? I don't remember if you drink. Of course, there's drink, and drink. I drink, but I haven't been drunk since Raegan was president.

I got a DUI, and in jail, I actually fell down and pissed my pants. You don't need to do that twice. I tell you this so you'll know everybody's been there.

Big Ernie

Everybody's been there.

Frank

Once. If you're there twice—having been there once—I can't help you...

You know, I listen to the drunks, and it's like you're listening to a fight with a fucking monster, when the actual title of the story is "I Can't Handle My Liquor," by Mr. Crybaby.

Big Ernie

Amen.

Frank

I don't know, maybe they got a problem, but fuck 'em if they do, 'cause I don't.

I really like the way this bit of dialog captures the sense of ennui that successful people can develop when they truly outgrow their past. It reminds me of Jay Z's demolishing opening bars on "Success":[12]

I used to give a fuck;
now I give a fuck less.
What do I think of suc-cess?
It sucks, too much stress

That ennui is (I think) a strange mix of empathy and contempt; it is the "confusion" that Jim's grandfather is referring to at the very start of the movie when he asks his grandson "who wants the world at their feet?"

We all value different things. That's a fact that's easy enough to acknowledge in the abstract or on some after-school special, but a lot harder to accept in reality, especially when our own values have changed over time and people we ostensibly identify with—who have values we used so subscribe to!—can ask us why we're not happy when we have a BMW M1.[13]


Fuck you

The Gambler is filled with characters who define their personal success on their own terms, keep their own counsel, and don't (truly) try to push anyone else to make the same choices they did.

  • Ed (Jim's grandfather) spent a life accruing wealth only to eschew leaving it to his (apparently only) grandson, instead trying to pass on some lesson of character.
  • Amy Phillips pulls her professor "into an inappropriate relationship" after seeing him in an illegal casino (where, to be fair, she works as a waitress) and even accompanies him to go gamble away the last money his family will ever give him.
  • Neville Baraka tells Jim (and the audience) directly that he's "not a huge fan of low company"—he's
    just doing what he has to do.
  • Roberta (Jim's mother) is well aware that "nothing's okay", but she wants to make her own goddamn decisions.

...And on and on and on. Literally every significant character in the movie is defined by a sense of true agency that's very rare—both in narrative and in life. They make their own unique decisions based on their life own unique life circumstances, and they accept the struggles and pain as well as the happiness and success.

In some sense one could see The Gambler as a philosophically
"conservative" movie, aligned with right-wing politics and... something something bootstraps, or whatever. I think the thinking behind The Gambler is much more personal than that, though; I see the film actually as a true manifestation of Stoic thought and an exploration of the ways in which we try to live our lives beyond the confines of the hedonic treadmill.[14]

The real divergence away from conservatism and into Stoicism is the very end—the infamous two-and-a-half minute "running scene" where Jim Bennett is finally free of all monetary obligations and he just decides to... run, all the way (apparently across town) to the home of the lovely Amy Phillips.

From what I've seen, people don't like that scene because it doesn't actually feel very triumphant. It goes on a little too long and Wahlberg's character ostensibly hasn't even really achieved that much; he's just back to zero.

Jim Bennett's ultimate success—what is (in film) normally a moment of true Triumph-with-a-capital-T—ultimately just feels like an absence of the anxiety (and beatings) that had stalked Jim throughout the rest of the film.[15]

Which is what success really feels like.

At the end, all reset to zero, Jim doesn't want the extra cash Frank offers him, or even a ride to where he's going, because Jim has finally reached a personal position of "fuck you". Money would've been great, but Jim (like others in the film) has already "done all that", not found it rewarding, and now he just wants to start over.

In the universe of The Gambler we see first-hand that success is something we define for ourselves and how it won't necessarily feel like anything we think we've been promised.

Personally, that's a message I wish I had truly absorbed many, many years ago.
 

...But, hey:

Everybody's been there.

4. Character

No one will ever convince me that the 2014 remake of The Gambler[16] isn’t the greatest movie ever made.

First, a quick recap of what I've covered so far:

The Gambler is a movie made for creative people, as seen in its aesthetic qualities---although it's also for successful people, which makes its ideal audience unfortunately small.

This link in the chain is about Jim Bennett's sense of ownership as a redeeming trait in his troubled character.

Everybody's (always) been there

So, something that I've been thinking about a lot lately is just the idea that life is intrinsically very hard, and that we aren't braced enough for that as we're growing up.

To bitch about participation trophies here would be to miss the point as much as those old after-school specials do when they explore a perverse world where all differences between people are both completely superficial and fully resolvable within a comfortable 60 minute viewing window.

What I really mean to get at is that there's an inescapable struggle in life that cannot be softened. Part of accomplishment is loss; part of health is illness; part of life itself is death. We read Dr. Seuss and muse on the places our children will go but try our best not to think of all the hardships in those journeys and what will meet them. We cannot, in fact, let ourselves get overly preoccupied with those hardships, because otherwise we would never do anything to begin with, and neither would our progeny.

No human has ever had any choice but to take chances---some big, some small—and try to figure things out one step at time, each time the results come back to us. Life's a gamble.

But still, we have a strong tendency to commit this unkindness against ourselves that express through the concept of "regret". We'll do something, live through a bad outcome from it, learn from that experience, and wish that we could have known all along without the lesson. We say that we "regret" having done what we did that made up part of who we are today, as though our lived experiences are separable from who we are.

"Regret" sucks, but the worst part about it is that as unkind as we our to ourselves, we tend to me much more cruel to others. It can be hard to not feel frustrated when people do not already know without ever learning.

The character of Jim Bennett is like a lightning rod for this emotion, and I suspect it's because he can remind us of some of the worst parts of ourselves.

I suspect, though, that realizing the strengths that are present in Jim can similarly help us find some of the better parts of ourselves.

No, I needed it...

A turning point for Jim's character comes when he realizes Amy Phillips (his love interest, played by Brie Larson) is being endangered by her association with him.

Mark Wahlberg's face at the exact moment his of his character's developmental climax.

He immediately moves to distance himself from her before fully (and finally)
launching into a plan to try to actually resolve his various mob-backed debts, something he was very notably unconcerned with before.

He is already on the hook for getting Lamar Allen to throw an upcoming game—that much was directly ordered by Neville Baraka—but Jim's approach shows immense consideration for Lamar as a person and deference to the basketball player's right to make his own decisions in life.

The discussion:

Lamar

What happened to your face, man?

Jim

A little while ago you came to me for advice about turning pro. I know it's about your knee, I know you have a feeling you have to put money in the bank, so...

I was wondering if you'd like to make a hundred fifty grand in two hours.

Lamar

Depends on what you have in mind.

Jim

Throwing a game. Can't win tomorrow by more than seven points.

Lamar

That's not throwing a game, that's winning by less than eight. Who wants me to do it?

Jim

Points at battered face

Lamar

What they got on you?

Jim

Doesn't matter.

Lamar

Man they fucked you up, and they ain't need to fuck you up.

Jim

No, I needed it. And they'll fuck you up if you need it too, you gotta deliver.

I'm asking 'cause I know you need it, it's up to you, it's your call.

Lamar

If I do this will I get you out of trouble?

Jim

No.

Key points that I think should be considered here:

First, Jim goes out on a limb to cut Lamar in on the money to be made. Note that Jim doesn't have Baraka's backing on this—he'll have to arrange his own bet on the game to fund it, all while hiding the entire exchange from Baraka—but he wants to do the right thing for the kid.

Second, while Jim does acknowledge to Lamar that Baraka's gang might try to come after him, he doesn't stress any personal risk to Lamar as a motivating factor. Realistically it seems unlikely that Lamar would be killed (or even seriously injured) without any direct interaction with Baraka or one of his people, but Jim is sure to be fully transparent about everything in play.

Third, Jim does everything he can to make himself a non-concern for Lamar. There is no attempt at emotional manipulation as Jim hides the risk to Amy, and he even tells Lamar that this definitively won't be enough to get him out of trouble.

Lamar is a key part in Jim's plan here, but Jim is taking immense ownership over the risks he's taking and refuses to put undue pressure on Lamar.

Paraphrasing a later scene, a man who takes ownership of his decisions and risks might even be more rare than a man who delivers.

Everything will start to be ok

I can understand why a lot of people would find Jim to be morally contemptible, but if you look back from the end of the movie I'm not sure that really holds up.

His absolution is to "get back to 0", having gotten out of debt and broken his ties to various organized crime syndicates, but not actually ending up with any money either. He declines Frank's invitation to take the "cream on top"—he won't even accept a ride home.

It's free money, what could go wrong?

And he achieves this "feat" through immense personal risk and having spent the length of the film getting the absolute piss beaten out of him more and more. He even gives away his Omega watch because (apparently) fuck it—or so Frank would say.

So he's spent all this time torturing himself by proxy, suffering viscerally for his various mistakes, but gets back to 0 and is strong enough to walk away, having learned from his mistakes and having found something (and someone) he wants to protect.

Can you ask much more of someone than that? Should you?

Maybe more importantly:

Can you ask much more of yourself than that? Should you?


  1. Directed by Rupert Wyatt and starring Mark Wahlberg ↩︎

  2. https://web.archive.org/web/20180930194141/https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2039393/ ↩︎

  3. https://web.archive.org/web/20180930194257/https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_gambler_2015/ ↩︎

  4. That link is "supposed" to point to the trailer for the film, but it's actually the trailer for the Rotten Tomatoes viewer score tumbling down to a gentleman's 33%. ↩︎

  5. https://web.archive.org/web/20180930203544/https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/05/28/how-superheroes-made-movie-stars-expendable ↩︎

  6. Yes, that's an Uhh Yeah Dude reference, although I wish I could find the specific episode. ↩︎

  7. https://web.archive.org/web/20181002064757/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Wyatt ↩︎

  8. Specifically, the Amazon original Single Asiatic Male Seeks Ride or Die Chick Published digitally 2018-05-28 by Amazon Original Stories, ASIN B078W75GKQ ↩︎

  9. Directed by Rupert Wyatt and starring Mark Wahlberg ↩︎

  10. The 2017 animated film directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. ↩︎

  11. Directed by Rupert Wyatt and starring Mark Wahlberg ↩︎

  12. Track 12 off of American Gangster, one of Hova's underrated albums. Released 2007-11-06 by Roc-A-Fella Records (release B0010229) ↩︎

  13. Ironically enough, Wahlberg's character drives a BMW 1M in the movie, not an M1. ↩︎

  14. Stoicism is actually one of the major underpinnings of the "tech elite" today, who will often recommend A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine as a good primer for the modern reader... The unfortunate part is that that's actually a really good book and the first one I would recommend, also. Published 2008-11-04 by Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195374612 ↩︎

  15. Alternatively: "the absence of failure", to use Elan Mastai's phrasing from his (overrated) novel All Our Wrong Todays. Published 2018-02-20 by Penguin Random House, ISBN 978-1101985151 ↩︎

  16. Directed by Rupert Wyatt and starring Mark Wahlberg ↩︎

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