Jim Bennett doesn't have a gambling problem. He's got a self-destruction problem. Gambling's just how it shows up.
He should be doing just fine. He comes from a wealthy family. He was blessed with a talent for writing, and he's published a few well-received books. He teaches English at a nearby university for legions of fawning students. Yeah, by all accounts, Jim has it pretty good.
But pretty good ain't good enough for this pretty boy. "If you're not a genius, don't bother," he tells his students. And since Jim's not a genius himself, he can't—or doesn't want to—shake the belief that he's just taking up space. Jim does not want to be an above-average person living an above-average life. He wants to touch the stars. He wants to win … at everything.
"To be or not to be," he says. "All or nothing." He will have it all, or he will destroy himself—one way or another.
So he plunks down cash night after night, playing blackjack, looking for his total victory. It's nothing for him to lay out $10,000—and lose it all in five minutes if the cards don't go his way. No surprise he's deep in hock to the Korean-owned gambling house. They're about to cut off his credit. And if he doesn't pay everything back, they may start cutting off his fingers as well.
"I think you're the kind of guy who likes to lose," gambling gangster Neville Baraka tells Jim. But he offers to loan him money anyway, in spite—or perhaps because—of his predilections. After all, you never know when a man with a genius for losing might come in handy.
As you might expect from a movie called The Gambler, betting is fairly pervasive—and illegal in Los Angeles, where Jim does most of his. But Jim is not a guy you'd want to emulate, and that's the point. At its core, The Gambler takes sin seriously and aims to show us how utterly self-destructive we can be when we're in the throes of it. That means the gambling we see isn't romanticized. Instead, it threatens Jim's very life and livelihood, and when he and his girlfriend, Amy Phillips, visit Las Vegas, she takes a look at the cold-eyed people playing slots (looking like they're having the opposite of fun) and concludes that there's something sadly wrong with them.
Amy tells Jim he's a textbook case of someone who starts off without any problems and winds up with all of them. There's truth in that: Jim's strange self-destructive streak is mystifying. But I think it can remind us that we, too, sometimes orchestrate our own destructive moments. And that we can be guilty of wanting it all when, really, what we have is pretty good.
At least Jim does try to put some protective distance between himself and Amy when things start getting dangerous, hoping that when he faces his violent end, his creditors won't kill her too.
A priest presides over a funeral.
Jim does business in a strip club where bare-breasted dancers are seen in the background, some writhing around the poles. A quip is made about someone's "size."
Amy isn't just Jim's girlfriend: She is also his student. At first he rejects getting involved with her, but she finally convinces him to launch into an "inappropriate relationship" with her. The two kiss, hug and zip off to Las Vegas together.
The folks who Jim borrows money from aren't the sort who, if you renege on a loan, take you to small-claims court. Nope. Jim is bludgeoned and beaten a handful of times instead. On one occasion, he's brutalized in a salon—punched repeatedly while still spitting out possible deals along with the blood in his mouth (as the crime boss gets a manicure). On another, Jim's tied to a chair and repeatedly hit and kicked. Gangsters visit Jim at his house and repeatedly force his head under water in a bathtub.
Not that Jim hasn't thought about drowning himself, anyway. We see the gambler taking a bath and submerging his head for long periods. He stares at a disassembled gun, seemingly contemplating using it on himself. The movie suggests that much of his gambling is not for the thrill of winning, but rather a drawn-out form of suicide—an effort to end his life, or at least his life as he knows it. When someone tells Jim that he doesn't understand suicide, Jim responds, "That's because you're happy."
Deadly, graphically detailed threats are leveled against Jim, his girlfriend and his family. His mother slaps him.
Crude or Profane Language
More than 100 f-words and about 20 s-words. We're also bombarded by "a--," "b--ch," "h---" and "p---." God's name is paired with "d--n" a few times, and Jesus' name is abused.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Amy mentions that her mother was an alcoholic (and insane). People drink wine, beer and whiskey, but one tough guy claims he hasn't "been drunk since Reagan was president"—back when he got so soused he wet his pants. Now he believes that people who claim to be alcoholics are just "crybabies."
Folks smoke cigars and cigarettes. A college tennis player says he gravitated to the sport because the tennis players always had "the best weed."
Other Negative Elements
Despite Jim getting regularly beat up for being hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, there may be some who still find the movie's bleak wager-based atmosphere appealing in a dark and (just like Jim) self-destructive way.
After Jim's mom practices a bit of tough love by tearfully deciding to relinquish any hold she has on her son and walk away, Jim says, "At least I'm gonna get rid of my mother."
Jim has flirted with death for much of his life. In flashback, we see him sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool, holding his breath for as long as he can. He's always flouted the odds, playing chicken with his own soul.
"Life's a losing proposition," Jim says, and he seems to believe that the odds against him enjoying it are as long as beating the house at blackjack. And the result is him wanting everything or nothing, total victory or oblivion.
But he still gives himself a sliver-small out.
"If I can get to nothing, then I can start over," he says. In other words, if he can locate the bottom of the pool again, he might find his way back up to the surface.
Sound familiar? It does to me. It's the theme of many a Christian testimony told by souls who were so lost in a haze of drugs or sex or other sin that there didn't seem to be any hope … until they hit bottom. Only then could they find their way back. Their way up. Their way home.
"A man can transform his s---, Jim," someone tells him. It's a statement that perfectly sums up The Gambler. It is a movie that clearly lays out the wages of a man's sin. It holds out the hope of at least secular salvation, if not Christian redemption. And it turns the theater air blue all the way through.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Mark Wahlberg as Jim Bennett; Brie Larson as Amy Phillips; Michael Kenneth Williams as Neville Baraka; Anthony Kelley as Lamar Allen; John Goodman as Frank; Domenick Lombardozzi as Big Ernie; Jessica Lange as Roberta; George Kennedy as Ed
Rupert Wyatt ( Rise of the Planet of the Apes)
December 25, 2014
April 28, 2015