Can't read Mark, can't read Mark's poker face…
Mark Wahlberg is Jim Bennett, the most jaded, cynical, total-asshole-yet-kinda-cool college professor you ever did see. He’s also a gambler, spending his nights at a Korean gaming house staking tens of thousands on a hand of blackjack or a spin of the roulette wheel.
Just shy of a quarter-mill in the hole, Bennett finds his credit cancelled; he has a week to find the cash or lose some body parts, and he only makes thing worse by borrowing, and blowing, $50K from a notorious loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams), and then pressing another vicious lender (John Goodman, bald and topless in a sauna) for cash…
The Gambler is a remake of a forceful 1974 drama that was scripted (with a fair degree of autobiography) by James Toback, skilfully played by James Caan and directed by Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Here the helm belongs to Rupert Wyatt, marking a change of pace after Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. Lest we forget, Wyatt debuted small with tense prison-break drama The Escapist, and The Gambler sees him retighten his focus for a character study where set-pieces involve not an army of apes on charging horses but the turn of a card or the bounce of a silver ball.
These gambling scenes are tremendous, charged with car-wreck fascination as Bennett repeatedly goes all in. Is it an attempt to feel alive? An egotistic conviction that he can beat the system? A fuck-you to his mother (Jessica Lange) and his privileged background? Self-loathing? Death wish? The script by William Monahan (The Departed) refuses to deal answers, and Wahlberg’s corrosively articulate Bennett remains poker-faced throughout, outwardly caring not one jot if he wins big or loses all.
Of course, whether an audience can fret over the fate of a guy who seems so unconcerned himself is another matter – the absence of exposition adds to the mystery of a film crammed with moody night-time visuals, but a little more psychology would have benefitted the picture.
A lack of dimension also underserves the terrifically talented Brie Larson (Short Term 12), here playing a gifted literature student sucked into Bennett’s vortex. Strongminded and, at first, hypnotically inscrutable, she’s soon packaged into the box marked ‘love interest’, ready to play her part in a schematic finale. Shame, because The Gambler has its fair share of aces. If only it had played its hand a little differently, it might have won big.