Gambling a life away

Jim Bennett wants out, out from everything. His posh suits. His English professor job. Getting away from his debts and into a new life. That is what Bennett wants, but can’t have.

The Gambler is the anti-American dream. Bennett made it and he hates it. Thus, he gambles. This is not over an addiction – The Gambler seems persistent about identifying such actions as a choice – rather a means of escape. Ruining himself would be total. That’s what Bennett seeks.

Symptoms of an identity crisis surround him. Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is admired, even respected as a substandard novelist. Everyone who speaks to him does so in metaphors for his own life. They forcibly make conversation about Bennett via abstract yet purposeful questions or responses. Everything is about him. It’s suffocating, and as a narrative form, completely alluring.

Few films are more patient, contemporary ones anyway. The Gambler is a striking remake of the James Caan vehicle from 1974. Now, the prose is sharper, the style is more measured, and the pacing exquisite. The Gambler functions in modern form; it is less a story about money than a richly textured investigation of a man trying to break himself free of what he perceives as shackles.

There is a sense Bennett is self-absorbed, carrying an intellectual smugness. As a character, he is effortlessly likeable. As a person, Bennett is utterly mad. It is not difficult to understand why he needs such an outlet, even one in which he is beaten by bookies and loan sharks.

The Gambler comes across as sophisticated, high on itself as much as Bennett is to himself


William Monahan likely writes this adaptation too far from normalcy. Discussions over personal attributes and choices swerve miles from what The Gambler appears to be about on the surface – a man who relentlessly, voraciously blows hundreds of thousands of dollars even as he sinks deeper into debt. Monahan takes such a structure and makes it human. The Gambler comes across as sophisticated, high on itself as much as Bennett is to himself.

Such material is presented heavier than it probably should be. This Wahlberg vehicle is sympathetic, not sarcastic comedy or an action spectacle. The Gambler is seedy, often unmoving. Never is the feature immediate. It is even less direct. For Wahlberg, such a script is a breakout. He begins the movie in tears, already broken. His emotive properties only grow from there, and the casting decision begins to payoff. It saves a rather uneven movie from collapsing in on itself as The Gambler sucks in bit players. Wahlberg in the middle is a fine story anchor.

Movie ★★★★☆ 

Mopey face @ 1:31:49

Heavy color grading puts The Gambler into a routine pattern of warms and cools. Few primaries are ever striking. Nearly every tone is oppressed by a veil of of digital tinkering. Rarely is the effect outwardly pleasing.

As such, flesh tones are weakened. Fine detail can be too. Interiors tend to wash out fidelity, at times severely. Mid-range shots are frequently hindered. Close-ups, while inconsistent, are less so. Many of the latter will produce exceptional texture.

Outside of some (likely unavoidable) banding, Paramount’s encode is pleasing. Images pass by noise-free. Cinematography is so stable as to be rarely challenging anyway.

Other concerns can be directed toward a failing contrast with dried up black levels and mediocre brightness. The Gambler uses infrequent light, often set in underground gambling clubs or in Bennett’s home at night. Daylight is a definite reprieve. However, this obviously suits the narrative; never is the effect overbearing.

Video ★★★★☆ 

Paramount offers some great audio effects with their mountain logo, here using a roulette ball to spin around the sound stage as the stars roll in. It’s fun. The Gambler uses a throbbing score as a sonic centerpiece from there, enveloping and leering as it beats in the low-end at various levels.

The rest of the mix is accentuation, bringing casinos to life, a lecture room, and a stadium too. Ambiance is strong. One dream sequence brings in a thunderstorm and a flood to dramatic (but brief) effect.

Audio ★★★★☆ 

Only one of the bonuses breaks the 15-minute mark, yet they’re excellent explorations of character, purpose, and style beginning with Mr. Self-Destruct. The focus here is on the original film and the processes of updating such a story. Dark Before Dawn is villain-centric, dissecting framing devices and their characters. Changing the Game spends time with writer William Monahan, focusing on how he approached the project while being quite candid.

Next is In the City which lays out L.A. as the shooting location with Dressing the Players following up with a focus on costume design. Six deleted/extended scenes run for 23-minutes.

Extras ★★★★☆ 

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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.