“The Gambler” Is A Tour De Force Remake

Everything about “The Gambler,” directed by Rupert Wyatt and featuring Mark Wahlberg as a college professor with a serious addiction, should scare you senseless. This is a dark study of a tormented soul in which not only is English professor Jim Bennett hopelessly outmatched by his compulsive habit to gamble , but the audience is dragged down into the whirlpool, as well. You know that sinking feeling you prefer not to have. This film gets you there effectively and mercilessly.

I wandered mindlessly into this one. I expected flat drivel. Midway through, I began to suspect that paying attention to the script of this decidedly B-movie plot sideshow might be worth my while. That’s what happens when you realize you have entered the black hole of addiction and you remember the pitch phrase on the movie’s poster says, “the only way out is all in.” This means you are trapped but good and you begin to squirm or duck low in your chair, because some addictions don’t end so well.

Straight to the bottom line, this is a haunting tour de force portrayal of a powerful curse on a human soul played out with a determined lack of sentimentality. You could replace Wahlberg with Denzel Washington and get to the same place. These are actors who understand that torment likes to take its time and toy with you for awhile.

Further, the beauty of this character study is enhanced by its spiritual ambiguity. The sharks that repeatedly pass on the option of breaking of Bennett’s legs or killing him outright just add to the agonizing suspense. This is a study of losing and while betting is quick, losing at life is a very slow thing to do.

Mark Wahlberg’s ambiguity is masterful, as well. He should be angrier or sadder. He should sweat a lot more. He should break out in nervous laughter or uncontrollable shakes. Instead, he rides along with a clenched depression and determined tunnel vision. You want to slap him. A lot. A real lot.

But this is Hollywood, right? This has to add up to a conclusion? The tension has to break, does it not?

Well, yes and no. B-movies have different climax points than top shelf releases and this is an unusual case of an A-movie cast and director remaking a 1974 mid-shelf film that featured James Caan, Paul Sorvino and Lauren Hutton – based on the novel written by James Toback. That was considered a classic in its day, but I like this one much better, which is a rare achievement for any remake.

This film released on Christmas Day includes a fabulous supporting cast, including Jessica Lang as Bennett’s mother, Roberta, John Goodman as an underworld shark named Frank, Brie Larson as doe-eyed girlfriend Amy Phillips, Alvin Ing as Korean gangster Lee and most notably Michael K. Williams as Neville Baraka, just another street shark who has to keep his anger in check despite Bennett’s infuriating behavior.

What does Bennett do? He likes to rant and rave while teaching English to college students and he likes to lose big at cards and roulette.

This movie has a spare, absorbing plot too simple to bother with much of a summary. But this is where the surprise factor comes in. We get used to dramatic plots at the movies and forget the cruelty of torment in real life tends to be in about stagnation, rather then hyped up car chases. The depth of this film comes from the point of view that Bennett’s life is a time bomb, rather than a roller coaster ride. Kudos for the producers to agree to keeping it that way.

And, given this is a character study, the audience is treated to a cast full of memorable characters, all playing off-type. No stereotypes here. But for the most part there’s a gambler, too addicted to be loveable and there’s a brick wall that is not going to move. These two are going to collide. As far as plot, that’s not much to go on, but it is about all you need to know.

Highlights, it should be said, include Theo Green and Jon Brion‘s film score, which is spare and tormented, as well.

Many critics are claiming The Gambler is a tough sell after the James Caan classic and that Jessica Lange’s performance should win her a supporting role Oscar. I disagree on both points. Lange’s work is commendable, but the role isn’t complicated enough for an Oscar. She does a good job, but angry mothers are a dime a dozen.