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 tried to talk about with The Gambler is that it’s a movie made for creative people, something I elaborated on while focusing on the film’s aesthetic qualities. I think an unfortunate truth about it, though, is that it’s also a movie for successful people—the ideal audience being both successful and creative, which is a tragically small niche.
A fairy story about a fight with a fucking monster
I linked John Goodman’s excellent last monologue in part 2 of this series, but it’s a really important point of synthesis for the film so bear with me while I revisit it.
It starts out with Frank brushing on his perceptions of and experiences with alcoholism—doing so, naturally, with a brutal frankness (Frank-ness?) that will continue on for the rest of the scene:
You drink? I don’t remember if you drink. Of course, there’s drink, and drink. I drink, but I haven’t been drunk since Raegan was president.
I got a DUI, and in jail, I actually fell down and pissed my pants. You don’t need to do that twice. I tell you this so you’ll know everybody’s been there.
Everybody’s been there.
Once. If you’re there twice—having been there once—I can’t help you…
You know, I listen to the drunks, and it’s like you’re listening to a fight with a fucking monster, when the actual title of the story is “I Can’t Handle My Liquor,” by Mr. Crybaby.
I don’t know, maybe they got a problem, but fuck ‘em if they do, ‘cause I don’t.
I really like the way this bit of dialog captures the sense of ennui that successful people can develop when they truly outgrow their past. It reminds me of Jay Z’s demolishing opening bars on “Success”: Track 12 off of American Gangster, one of Hova’s underrated albums. Released 2007-11-06 by Roc-A-Fella Records (release B0010229)
I used to give a fuck;
now I give a fuck less.
What do I think of suc-cess?
It sucks, too much stress
That ennui is (I think) a strange mix of empathy and contempt; it is the “confusion” that Jim’s grandfather is referring to at the very start of the movie when he asks his grandson “who wants the world at their feet?”
We all value different things. That’s a fact that’s easy enough to acknowledge in the abstract or on some after-school special, but a lot harder to accept in reality, especially when our own values have changed over time and people we ostensibly identify with—who have values we used so subscribe to!—can ask us why we’re not happy when we have a BMW M1. Ironically enough, Wahlberg’s character drives a BMW 1M in the movie, not an M1.
The Gambler is filled with characters who define their personal success on their own terms, keep their own counsel, and don’t (truly) try to push anyone else to make the same choices they did.
- Ed (Jim’s grandfather) spent a life accruing wealth only to eschew leaving it to his (apparently only) grandson, instead trying to pass on some lesson of character.
- Amy Phillips pulls her professor “into an inappropriate relationship” after seeing him in an illegal casino (where, to be fair, she works as a waitress) and even accompanies him to go gamble away the last money his family will ever give him.
- Neville Baraka tells Jim (and the audience) directly that he’s “not a huge fan of low company”—he’s just doing what he has to do.
- Roberta (Jim’s mother) is well aware that “nothing’s okay”, but she wants to make her own goddamn decisions.
…And on and on and on. Literally every significant character in the movie is defined by a sense of true agency that’s very rare—both in narrative and in life. They make their own unique decisions based on their life own unique life circumstances, and they accept the struggles and pain as well as the happiness and success.
In some sense one could see The Gambler as a philosophically “conservative” movie, aligned with right-wing politics and… something something bootstraps, or whatever. I think the thinking behind The Gambler is much more personal than that, though; I see the film actually as a true manifestation of Stoic thought and an exploration of the ways in which we try to live our lives beyond the confines of the hedonic treadmill. Stoicism is actually one of the major underpinnings of the tech elite today, who will often recommend A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine as a good primer for the modern reader… The unfortunate part is that that’s actually a really good book and the first one I would recommend, also. Published 2008-11-04 by Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195374612
The real divergence away from conservatism and into Stoicism is the very end—the infamous two-and-a-half minute “running scene” where Jim Bennett is finally free of all monetary obligations and he just decides to… run, all the way (apparently across town) to the home of the lovely Amy Phillips.
From what I’ve seen, people don’t like that scene because it doesn’t actually feel very triumphant. It goes on a little too long and Wahlberg’s character ostensibly hasn’t even really achieved that much; he’s just back to zero.
Jim Bennett’s ultimate success—what is (in film) normally a moment of true Triumph-with-a-capital-T—ultimately just feels like an absence of the anxiety (and beatings) that had stalked Jim throughout the rest of the film. Alternatively: “the absence of failure”, to use Elan Mastai’s phrasing from his (overrated) novel All Our Wrong Todays. Published 2018-02-20 by Penguin Random House, ISBN 978-1101985151
Which is what success really feels like.
At the end, all reset to zero, Jim doesn’t want the extra cash Frank offers him, or even a ride to where he’s going, because Jim has finally reached a personal position of “fuck you”. Money would’ve been great, but Jim (like others in the film) has already “done all that”, not found it rewarding, and now he just wants to start over.
In the universe of The Gambler we see first-hand that success is something we define for ourselves and how it won’t necessarily feel like anything we think we’ve been promised.
Personally, that’s a message I wish I had truly absorbed many, many years ago.
Everybody’s been there.