It may not be a perfect film, but watching Mark Wahlberg play the antihero is as intriguing as ever.
February 20, 2015
An antihero in a spiral of self-destruction? Here we go again. In The Gambler, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) descends into a dangerous gambling addiction from privileged heights, risking more than most people dream of. He comes from a rich family and has a plum associate professor job teaching literature. He also has two big debts to the type of people you don’t want to owe money to, is thinking about taking on a third and walks around scowling beneath his sunglasses.
A good guy with good vibrations Jim is not, as his put-upon mother (Jessica Lange) would confirm. He isn’t anything special either, as he admits in rants on genius to his students — including star pupil Amy (Brie Larson) — about his failed novelist career. His story has been seen before, quite literally given that the film remakes the 1974 movie of the same name. And yet, there’s something fascinating about Jim, The Gambler, the drifting and grifting, and the overall mood of just not giving a damn.
Perhaps it is seeing Wahlberg as a different type of character, relying on looks and glances rather than muscle and weapons. He’s more than a step away from the well-intentioned heroes he usually plays. He is also paired well with The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams and John Goodman, both standouts as two of the formidable loan sharks trying to collect their cash.
It isn’t a coincidence that Marky Mark does his best work with conflicted protagonists caught in dubious situations; think Boogie Nights and the more recent Pain & Gain. He may not show the depths of compulsion others have managed, but he convinces as someone given every advantage and opportunity to make the right choice, yet constantly, selfishly and damagingly, opting otherwise.
Also effective is Rupert Wyatt’s direction, a clear change of pace from making Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The script, by The Departed’s William Monahan, relies on the gimmick of time, giving Jim seven days to settle up or get killed, but Wyatt’s ‘70s-influenced look and feel — favouring patient pacing, wide spaces and lingering moments — helps patch over a story that’s often more than a bit too convenient.
The Gambler isn’t without its troubles, almost unforgivingly furnishing Larson and Lange with little to do, their talents wasted on their slight roles. The film also hits the audience over the head with its blunt themes and a few silly twists, not to mention heavy-handed music cues. Pulp’s Common People as Larson’s supposedly normal Amy walks along campus? A choral rendition of Radiohead’s Creep as Wahlberg’s Jim ponders his actions? We get it.
There’s a reason that antihero stories just keep on coming, feeding viewer interest in complicated folks in tricky situations. The Gambler may not sell everything about its scenario, but it embraces its grating character and its familiar circumstances with style and assurance. Like Jim, the film goes all in, never playing it safe or hedging its bets. There are worse things to take a punt on.
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