Review: Mark Wahlberg tempts fate in the sly and stylish ‘The Gambler’

For the purposes of this review, it doesn't matter that there's a movie from the '70s starring James Caan that is a key piece of the James Toback mythology as created by James Toback himself that is also called “The Gambler.” This film doesn't exist without that film as a springboard, but screenwriter William Monahan, director Rupert Wyatt, and star Mark Wahlberg have made something that lives and dies on its own merits, in its own voice, worthy of its own conversation.

“The Gambler” details a week in the life of a desperate man. Setting a ticking clock is an easy way to get the audience hooked early. In “A Most Violent Year,” someone signs a business deal that has a hard 30-day-pay-or-quit clause built in, and you know that you're going to see every second of every one of those days of someone struggling to meet that deadline. In this film, from the start, they're telling you there are seven days left. Then six. Then five. We see we're counting backwards. To what, we're not sure, and the movie keeps you guessing until the final insane act. Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is never presented as anything less than a degenerate, a man who will seriously do anything in pursuit of a very specific high. He's just good enough to make it heartbreaking, and he's just smart enough to know what he's doing to himself.

There are people who care. A little bit. His mother Roberta (Jessica Lange). A student, Amy, who he takes an interest in (Brie Larson). And a basketball player who is starting to stare down a metaphorical shot clock (Anthony Kelley), who looks at Jim as an honest man in his own depravity.

I like movies like this. I like it where a man is about to crumble because of his own hubris, and he has to figure out if he's going to live or die. I like that narrative. I like it when the hero of a film figures he's got to be willing to burn his entire life to the ground to make it better. Done right, there's something about that narrative that really gets its hooks in, where I find myself really rooting for the happy ending. I want to reward someone who bets on themselves.

Unless they shouldn't be betting at all. Unless the very act of betting is a half-request for oblivion. If you bet your entire life on something, and you come up empty, then you bet it. You at least tried. And Jim seems like a guy who keeps waiting for the bet where he puts down something he can't afford to lose, when he tips from possible to inevitable, when he's no longer worth staking. He's a junkie running out of veins, so to speak, running out of people he can hustle. It's not cute. It's not something he can keep doing. He asks someone at one point to pull over a quarter of a million dollars in cash out of the bank for him. And he doesn't do what he should with it. Because there's no way anyone should give this broken man that much cash.

Mark Wahlberg plays this guy as a guy who knows that every bet, he's putting a loaded gun to his head and pulling the trigger. He's ready. He's unafraid. He may not literally do that, but he keeps finding new people to borrow from, and they are not people he wants to have angry at him. Michael K. Williams, so good on “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Wire,” is great here as Neville, one of the men who Jim borrows money from as he spends a week chasing down a mythical zero, a moment where he can get everyone paid and walk away. Frank (John Goodman) is another source of that money. It's hard for Jim to keep track of who's threatening to hurt him and how, so he just keeps moving forward as if he's okay, as if he doesn't care. If death lands on him, it's not even clear if he'll put up a fight. But until then, he's pretty much in constant motion. Unstoppable.

Brie Larson is so good in the movie that it's a little infuriating, because she doesn't really have anything to do. She is the focus of a certain kind of energy on Jim's part, and he pretends to struggle with his obvious attempts to charm Amy. At a certain point, Jim's debts threaten to spill over into the lives of the people around him, and Amy's life in particular is threatened, and it's like Popeye gets his spinach because Jim can suddenly do no wrong. This is the kind of role where I most like Mark Wahlberg, and Brie Larson is a great foil for him, a great dance partner for the scenes where he has to start thinking about his future and how he is going to live. Or not. I wish they really wrote something for Larson to do, though. She's an easy-to-understand muse, someone's reason, and she can play charming without a doubt. It makes it doubly wrong when someone threatens her well-being.

 Grieg Fraser has been on a run lately, and he does sterling work in “The Gambler.” The way he paints this world, the way he follows Jim through it, the way the camera keeps putting us right in the most uncomfortable seat for the gambling, both the wins and the losses. Just as important is the score by Jon Brion and Theo Green, peppered with lots of song uses that are well-curated if occasionally on the nose. This is a film that is quietly confident. Everything's well-composed. Everything's put together right.

There's a very sure hand on the wheel here, and at this point, I'm sold on Rupert Wyatt as a guy who can tell a story with a certain kind of intelligence, both towards his subject and towards his audience. He respects the material and he respects the possible audience, believing that they will get it. His “Apes” was surprisingly smart precisely because we've seen just how bad those movies can be. It was unexpectedly soulful. Here, he's made something that is itchy and propulsive and alive, and it's not a particularly deep movie. We've seen plenty of films about self-destructive assholes over the years.

Just because this guy turns out to have a decent streak at the exact right moment doesn't really make him a hero, and I think Wyatt and Monahan and Wahlberg know that. That's exactly what they like. Can you ever really get your account to zero once you've started into a world like this? Can you ever really walk away?

“The Gambler” will be in limited release on December 19, 2014, and then opens everywhere on January 1, 2015.