No one will ever convince me that the 2014 remake of The Gambler Directed by Rupert Wyatt and starring Mark Wahlberg isn’t the greatest movie ever made.
The first thing I always try to explain about The Gambler is that it’s really a movie made for creative people. That’s easy to say, but maybe not easy to convince someone of, so let’s dig into it a bit more.
Maybe I enjoy the show
I remember the first time I saw the film was at an Alamo Drafthouse in Ashburn, VA—a sleepy neighborhood I didn’t know at all, about a 45 minute drive from where I was living at the time. My girlfriend and I would make the trek out for occasional date nights, and I really appreciated how out-of-the-way it felt. The drive back, in particular, would usually be after 1am (late for the DMV, outside of Friday/Saturday night bars and clubs) along a nearly-empty beltway with enough time to let any given movie really sink in.
I remember making this journey back from the theater after the movie, and before I ever thought too much about why the film’s themes resonated with me, I just kept thinking about how incredibly striking it was.
In a post-Loving Vincent The 2017 animated film directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman world the “every frame a painting” adage might feel a little overwrought, but it’s hard to find a single camera shot in The Gambler that isn’t gorgeous. The cinematography relishes in interesting compositions that the main characters have a small presence in, along with varied, contrasting colors, and a strong sense of the environment for any given scene.
Even within the repeated setting of Jim Bennet’s lecture hall, framing and lighting are manipulated to emphasize the warmth between Wahlberg’s character and Larson’s as well as the shared frustration with the world that connects Jim Bennet and Lamar Allan.
The creative shot composition doesn’t just help the movie stand out aesthetically, either. This idea is something I want to revisit later, but all the main characters in the film are singular within their worlds, and the tendency of the movie to minimize their actual form on-screen emphasizes that.
Even in crowded scenes like the casinos, The Gambler prefers to let its main characters fall into the background of obscured shots rather than force a framing where they pop out to the camera more. The creative discipline to it is both unusual and terribly effective.
The writing in The Gambler was just as striking to me as its visual aesthetic, and while the monologues are an obvious discussion point here, the creative discipline to some of the dialog is worth mentioning as well. Alvin Ing absolutely crushes his role, for instance, but part of that is capturing a very restrained sense of menace to the elder mobster that is Mr. Lee. His ultimatum to Bennet isn’t gratuitous, he just wants his money in seven days… period.
In The Gambler the writing isn’t just good in an abstract sense, it’s actually good screenplay writing that gives the actors room to bring in their own energy. It might not be obvious why “I don’t fucking want to do that shit” is a great line, but that’s only when you haven’t seen Michael Williams destroy the screen with it:
Of course, the other part of what makes the movie’s writing so great are the times when it does simply go in, no holds barred. Goodman’s last monologue is a great example of that—it’s funny and clever while also being incredibly brazen and insensitive in a way that an actual mobster would be.
Got by talent, imagine that
I think some of what I appreciate as craftsmanship is exactly what kept The Gambler niche. What’s “striking” to me feels overblown or even melodramatic to other people. Which is fine. I aim to be a man for all seasons, not all things to all people, and I appreciate others—and especially works of art—that do the same.
The sense of of a determined aesthetic present in the movie, though, is something that I think is indisputable. People might wish it pursued something different with the same enthusiasm, but the creative drive can’t be waved away.
I think for creative people, though, the drive to bring a creative vision to life without compromise—regardless of what that vision actually is—is more respectable than anything else. In every field, professionals recognize other professionals before any other judgements, and The Gambler is unabashedly artsy in a way that people of the same make can empathize with.
The Gambler is for creative people, and the first mark of that is in its aesthetics and mechanics.