I was asked to take a look at Mark Wahlberg's latest film, The Gambler and it was honestly a gamble for me, but it paid off once I put it all on the table.
Let me take you on my journey through the film before we get into the movie itself. I started by trying to clear my mind of preconceptions about the film and the genre overall, but for me it was difficult at first because I had seen the James Caan film from 1974 as well as having read The Gambler book by Fyodor Dostoyevsky which both films are loose adaptations of (yes, I was born & bred into literary fandom as I know some of my fellow creators and staffers are as well, yes I'm looking in your general direction Alisha). But, there I sat with my iPad in front of me and notepad beside (I still like going old-school from time to time when I'm looking to glean something from a video). I finished downloading my digital copy, and I jumped right in...
As I thought about what to write, and how to express what I took away from this movie, I kept re-watching it, hoping to find a glimmer of connective tissue to tie an article together. I'm now on my fourth time through the movie and with each pass the same dialogues pull my attention and make me think a little deeper each time. This film seems like an ordinary film. It's framed by beautiful music, well described characters, brilliant actors and actresses; but ultimately it is the conversations that make this movie more than ordinary. And there it is... My connective tissue: the conversations. There are 6 conversations that define this film and show us the breakdown of our own lives and how our actions affect and are affected by those aspects. So with that, let us begin our existential journey together.
*Let me warn you here: This article WILL spoil the film if you haven't seen it*
Conversation 1: Ed - Your Future
The movie opens up with Mark Wahlberg's character, Jim Bennett, and George Kennedy's character, Ed (Jim's grandfather), having one of the more poignant dialogues I've heard in a movie's introductory 5 minutes. Now, to be honest, the dialogue isn't what most people will remember about the movie but in terms of preparing me for what I was about to see in the film, it was exquisitely done. Even though I didn't understand it fully until I reached the end of the film.
So, what are you going to do for me? ... We're gonna be straight that I've had it. What do you say to the fact that... I'm gonna die? - Ed
I'm gonna miss you. - Jim
F*** that. I won't know about that. - Ed
I need to know what you're worth, when I leave you nothing... Who wants the world at their feet? It's confusing isn't it? - Ed
I'll do the best I can, you can go knowing that, okay? - Jim
You're me now. ...If you'll have it? - Ed
So there it is. Reading through the words probably means absolutely nothing to you if you haven't seen the movie so let me break down what that dialogue actually represents to the movie. Ed is trying to cut through the crap and get to the point. He is leaving Jim with a choice. We are led to assume that Jim hasn't been the most functional addition to the Bennett family, and Ed is calling him out, basically. Through the movie we learn that Ed was one of the wealthiest men in all of California, which would in turn have left Jim with significant wealth, but Jim through his own behavior and choices has severed ties with his family (this will make sense later in the movie).
Conversation 2: Neville Baraka - Your Present
The Gambler seems, on the surface, to be about our main character Jim Bennett who through the first fifteen minutes enjoys gambling a bit too much, raising his $10,000 to $80,000 in an instant then loses it all plus an extra $40,000 fronted by the dealer. Seems fairly straightforward, right? As we get into the film, we meet one of the films antagonists, Neville Baraka, and he starts a conversation with Jim and we begin to see something bigger playing out.
Hope you paid your rent, holmes? - Neville
I don't pay rent holmes. - Jim
Whats up man, you got a problem? Issue of some kind? - Neville
Hey I don't like you're f***ing hat... Ya know I think you kinda wanted me to have an issue, So I thought of that one. - Jim
I'll see you outside my friend. - Neville
We all gotta go outside some time brother, this place is just a dream. You a gambler? - Jim
Not like you... - Neville
This is what we expect coming into this film, any film like this actually, we assume that Jim has a gambling problem and that he's an easy mark with issues stemming from something, somewhere... That's our preconceived notion for anyone who displays the mannerisms that what we see in Jim: continually doubling-up bets, asking for stakes and fronts, willing to put it all in on a 50/50 shot. These are all the telltale signs of a gambling addiction. Through the movie we see all the markers of a compulsive and pathological gambler, yet I think Neville is getting at something else in this conversation. Neville is talking about his current situation, his present state. Jim is trying to do something, and Neville is curious. He originally took Jim as an easy mark, but as the two interact throughout the movie... there's so much more to the story.
Conversation 3: Jim Bennett & his students - Your Past
Now we start seeing some insight into Jim Bennett after we see him in front of a group of college students as a Literature professor speaking about William Shakespeare.
Rage over the nature, an unequal distribution of talent. Rage that genius appears where it appears for no material reason at all. Desiring a thing can not make you have it. Now the trouble with writing, if I may bring it up here in the English department; is we all do a little of it from time to time, writing. And some of us start to think delusionally maybe with a little time, a little peace, a little money in the bank and we get that room to your own, you think well sh** maybe I might be a writer too. - Jim
For me to be a novelist I would have to make a deal with myself. that it was okay being in mediocrity in a profession that died commercially in the last century. Okay, people do that - I am not one of them. If you take away nothing else from my class, from this experience, let it be this: If you're not a genius, don't bother! - Jim directing his speech at a student
This is Jim Bennett. You listen to his words and you start to think you have an understanding of his character and ultimately why he has this life filled with gambling and debt, yet if you really listen to his words... there is more to it than that. Between the two quotes above, a student states that he is a novelist and that causes the second tirade. Put these two quotes together and you get the assumption that Jim has deep anger, rage even, towards calling himself a writer.
When was the last time that somebody told you that you were a genius? - Amy (Brie Larson)
He obviously has something that he's trying either work through or has already given up on. We are led to assume that he was a failed novelist, writer, dramatist or something along those lines - which would lead to rage and anger as well as the actions that we see when he is gambling. His past is haunting him and suffering through this gambling addiction is his coping mechanism.
We continue into the movie now having a decent idea about Jim and his inner workings, or do we?
Conversation 4 - Lamar Allen - Your Outlook
After a verbal and emotional explosion in his class, Jim asks one student in particular to remain after because he's tired of the lack of attention and the general concept that Jim is supposed to pass Lamar solely because he is a gifted athlete.
In here it's all existential situations and sh**, no matter what you start talking about you come around to 'to be or not to be' how to be yourself or nothing at all. - Lamar
Is that what I talk about, all or nothing? - Jim
I've never heard you talk about anything else but 'to be or not to be' and I've had four classes with you.. - Lamar
Maybe you've got me... - Jim
Lamar just called Jim out, and pointed out what could be Jim's flaw. That life is all or nothing, that there is no middle ground. There's no way to live other than all or nothing. Jim is/was defining his life by his choices. Through action and inaction he was defined by them - and in turn that impacted his outlook on life.
Conversation 5: Amy Phillips - Your Inspiration
If I have to pull you into an inappropriate relationship to get you out of your job, I'm ready to go. - Amy
So am I. - Jim
Amy is stepping things up, and she's trying to get Jim to live, to act, to do something to change his life from the mundane that he's currently trapped in. To chance it on something bigger. She's trying to get him to open his eyes again to the life outside of his suffering. She knows that he doesn't want to be an English Professor and she's trying to give him that escape, to inspire him to take action and reach for something else.
There's no relative degree of suffering. What? You want me to talk about my problems?... I don't like people with problems or the vanity to bring them up? - Jim
And you don't think you need to talk to someone? - Amy
No. I need a lot of things. I need to write myself out first. I need to have no past. If I can get to nothing then I can start over. ... ... You want to help me start over? - Jim
Now we see what he's trying to do. He's trying to recreate himself. He's trying to find his inspiration, to find himself. To find his happiness, and he only sees one way to make that happen. He needs a clean slate and he needs Amy to help, she is going to be his inspiration.
Conversation 6: Jim Bennett - Your Reality
There was a student; just the other day... who said that my problem, if one's nature is a problem, rather than just problematic, is that I see things in terms of victory or death, and not just victory but total victory. And it's true: I always have. It's either victory, or don't bother. The only thing worth doing is the impossible. Everything else is gray. You're born... as a man... with the nerves of a soldier, the apprehension of an angel, to lift a phrase, but there is no use for it. Here? Where's the use for it? You're set up to be a philosopher or a king or Shakespeare, and this is all they give you? This? Twenty- odd years of school which is all instruction in how to be ordinary... or they'll kill you, they will… And then it's a career, which is not the same thing as existence... I want unlimited things. I want everything. I want a real love. A real house. A real thing to do... every day. I'd rather die if I don't get it. Did I just say that out loud? - Jim
We've finally found the truth. Jim wants something more, and it is total victory or nothing at all. He's willing to risk it all to achieve a real love, to achieve a real life not just what's been given to him.
It's now that we discover that has been an existential crisis. The signs have been stacking up around you the entire film. The Hamlet references, Shakespeare: "To Be or Not to Be" -- Jim has been looking for an authentic life and he wagered it all in hopes that it would ultimately free or destroy him. He didn't want his family money or name. He didn't want to be lorded over by anyone else. He just wanted to live a life that meant something to him. And isn't that what we all strive for in some way? We can talk about fame and fortune and glory, but it really all comes down to finding a life that means something to you.
He took one final chance and put everything he had on the table. He finally found the truth behind everything that he had chosen up to this point and he knew where he was going and he was going to either get there or die trying.
All in all, if you're looking for a gambling movie... Honestly, this isn't your movie. But if you're looking for a movie that shows you the depths that a man will go to achieve the life that he longs for and is willing to risk his life for: love, freedom, hope and happiness, then The Gambler is that movie.