Film Review: The Gambler

by Keith Hill

Rated MA15+. Starring Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman. Directed by Rupert Wyatt.

What would you do if you had everything?

That’s the life that Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) was born into in The Gambler. The grandson of California’s 17th richest man, an acclaimed author and an Associate Professor of Literature. As loan shark Frank (Goodman) says, “Birth, education, intelligence, talent, looks.” Bennett has everything that most of us could only dream of.

But with everything going for him, Bennett is bent on self destruction. His lectures primarily consist of his berating students for their mediocrity, telling them they shouldn’t bother; he’s fallen for the one student in his class who he believes has any talent as a writer – a relationship that is out of bounds; and he has a talent for gambling that he uses only to allow himself to lose.

His desire to lose everything lands him nearly a quarter of a million dollars in debt, to three different loan sharks. Perplexingly, for both the audience and his creditors, Bennett seems to have no desire to pay off his debt. Threats to his life and family leave him unmoved. Even after his mother (Jessica Lange) gives him the cash to pay off his debt, he intentionally blows the whole lot in one night at a dodgy casino in Vegas.

The film is almost a constant stream of Bennett’s damning self assessment. His philosophy in life is ‘All or Nothing’. If he can’t be a literary genius, on par with Shakespeare, then he’d rather not write at all than be content to consign himself to mediocrity. All the wealth and privilege in the world can’t make him a great man, and so he’d rather not have it – and blackjack is his way out. As loan shark Neville Baraka (Michael K Williams) accurately diagnoses, “I think you’re the kind of guy who likes to lose.” For Bennett, it’s only when he has lost absolutely everything that he’s free.

While it can seem hard to empathise with Bennett, who does his best to throw away everything that he has going for him, his philosophy on life is not too far off the mark. Bennett sees that he’s only free to be happy if he can get to the point where he has absolutely nothing. What he doesn’t see is that we’re all at that point, on a much larger scale that he can imagine.

Regardless of the wealth, intelligence, talent, or looks that we have, we have nothing before God. There’s nothing in us, and nothing that we have or can offer, that would make us great before God. It’s only when we recognise that, and come to God empty handed, that we are set free from the burden of our fallen nature.

The Gambler features some great performances, particularly from it’s supporting cast – Jessica Lange, John Goodman and Michael K Williams are fantastic, and Wahlberg allows them to steal the scene. There’s some great lines in the script – non-sequiturs from Williams and profound but brutal philosophy from Goodman, and the soundtrack complements the film perfectly (and, mercifully, does not feature Kenny Rogers). Be warned there is plenty of strong language and sexual references here. Four out of five stars.

The Gambler is in Australian cinemas this Thursday, 5th February; and is now screening in cinemas elsewhere.

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