Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, John Goodman, Jessica Lange
For his follow up to the way-better-than-expected Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, director Rupert Wyatt takes the bones of a largely forgotten 1974 James Caan-starring, James Toback-penned existential thriller and repurposes them to good effect.
Mark Wahlberg is Jim Bennett, the titular gambler, a failed novelist eking out an unsatisfying living as a literature professor. The death of his grandfather catalyses a gambling binge, but it’s implicit that this is only an excuse – Bennett is bent on self-destruction. Thus, when he’s put on a seven day clock to pay back massive debts to both Korean gangster Mr Lee (Alvin Ing) and loan shark Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams), he takes it in stride – after all, what can they really threaten him with?
A muscular script by William Monahan (The Departed) gives the cast plenty to chew on, and they make the most of it. The dialogue is poetic rather than naturalistic, and veterans like John Goodman, here playing an amiable but terrifying upper echelon loan shark, clearly relish getting their mouths around Monahan’s tough rhythms and hard-edged quips.
Indeed, the whole cast is in top form – Jessica Lange as Bennett’s brittle, disappointed mother deserves special mention, as does the always great Brie Larson, who brings life to what could have been a thankless turn as Bennett’s student/lover. However, it’s Wahlberg that really impresses. Saying this is the best performance of his career may be damning the man with faint praise – he was in two Michael Bay films last year, for crying out loud – but he certainly brings his A-game here, lending Bennett a combination of desperation, arrogance, self-loathing and charm that makes him utterly magnetic. He also gets to grandstand with a few choice soliloquies – Bennett being the kind of guy who would never let a captive audience like a first year lit class go to waste.
Directorially, Wyatt occasionally lets his stylistic impulses overwhelm his material, but these lapses are noticeable largely because they’re jarring in contrast to the astute, steady work that characterises the rest of the film. Indeed, the opening 20 minutes or so. where the narrative and character stakes are laid out for us clearly, methodically and propulsively, is some of the most tense, evocative work seen in a major motion picture in the last few years – if the rest of the film never quite matches that first act, it’s only because that first act is so ridiculously good. Even so, the film keeps its grip on the viewer right ’til the end, Wyatt and Moynahan having worked hard to ensure that any number of horrible conclusions for our flawed hero would be perfectly valid, both narratively and tonally.
Tough, terse and captivating, The Gambler is well and truly worth a spin.
This review first appeared in X-Press Magazine.