Director James Toback has long had a fascination with self-destructive types – individuals whose temperament and talent are undermined by a corrosive knack for dragging themselves into a downward spiral that reconstitutes their lives. From his debut Fingers (1978), in which Harvey Keitel’s brilliant pianist gets mixed up with a criminal element, to his fascination with Mike Tyson – which led to a film version of the ex-boxing champs’ one man show Tyson (2008) – Toback has been unafraid to venture into dark territory in telling his slanted, often unconventional tales.
Toback’s first produced screenplay was The Gambler (1974), a James Caan vehicle about a helplessly compulsive risk-taker whose debts mount up in line with his scorn for the consequences. The film, directed by Karel Reisz, has long since faded into oblivion but it’s now been revived for the inevitable remake by screenwriter William Monahan whose credits include an Oscar win for The Departed (2006). British director Rupert Wyatt, after his success with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), was given the nod to helm the update and he’s done an excellent job arranging a compelling, disintegrating world around nihilistic anti-hero Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg playing the Caan role). Bennett’s a literature professor whose waning passion for his field of expertise is only revived when placing his life in jeopardy through high-stakes gambling at an exclusive underground club.
Bennett is scornful of life in general and dismissive of all talent that can never reach the heights of genius. His own mediocre novel is case-in-point in relegating himself to the league of also-rans. He attempts to point his one talented student, Amy, played by Brie Larson (so good in 2013’s Short Term 12), into fulfilling her talent. He has a strange, barely believable relationship with her that develops into something more. This is either complicated or enhanced by the fact that she’s witnessed the result of his darker impulses while conveniently moonlighting as a waitress in the gambling club.
The gambling scenes themselves are wonderful – both suspenseful and discomfiting, the potential for dangerous, if inevitable outcomes, breathing life into what are brilliantly staged sequences. Beyond the images are the colourful array of money-lenders and wheelers and dealers, all of whom are given wonderful slabs of dialogue to chew on, especially John Goodman’s imposing Frank, though there’s enough meat on the bone for Michael Kenneth Williams and others to savour as well.
On one hand, it’s almost impossible to like Bennett: he’s morally as well as financially bankrupt, disconnected emotionally from his mother (a juicy small role for Jessica Lange), with a carefree attitude that, beyond its contrivance, is also vaguely alluring. We should hate this man and yet in the hands of Wyatt, Monahan and Wahlberg (who gives one of his most interesting performances in years), we’re able to see a disparaging, alternate version of the world that we can relate to – one in which we too are victims to a hideously deformed apathy and carelessness. Monahan’s dialogue is regularly whip-smart, even when it approaches mild abstraction – especially so, perhaps, as this is often when it most accurately reflects the defining characteristics of The Gambler (2014), a tale that most definitely walks and talks to its own beat.