Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a college professor and excessive, high-stakes gambler who finds himself in severe debt to those you simply don’t want to be in debt to. One is Neville (Michael K. Williams), who demands his payment in a week – which is a sentiment expressed by the Koreans, who also want the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid in that same time. Jim knows the only way he can make that sort of cash is to gamble – and so pleads with gangster Frank (John Goodman – who is the best thing about this) for a loan, all while entering in to an illicit affair with his pupil, Amy (Brie Larson).
The most fascinating aspect to this feature is the gambling addition that our protagonist has, and how he can let a seemingly prosperous, fulfilling existence go to waste as a result of his unhealthy compulsion. However it’s simply not explored enough, and we watch on as he loses an incredible amount of money, never satisfied with his winnings, and we don’t get a sense of why he’s doing this, or how it might be affecting him. Take Steve McQueen’s Shame for instance – which studiously, and candidly explores sex addiction, allowing the viewer an insight into the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind, to help understand, and empathise with his situation, pitying and repelling the lead in equal measure. The Gambler, on the other hand, could not be further away from that, instead entering into the realm of the generic, ‘owing money to gangsters’ narrative.
As such there is a palpable disconnect between the viewer and Wahlberg’s Jim, as a role who is exceedingly difficult to find any compassion for. This detracts completely from the entire point of the narrative, as any underdog in that situation, who needs to make a lot of money to pay off the bad guys, has to have the audience behind them. But Jim is not nuanced, or endearing enough, and is actually quite abhorrent at times, rude to people and somewhat shallow.
Wyatt is let off the hook however for taking a distinctively cinematic approach, as a picture that requires a suspension of disbelief to enjoy. Similarly to the likes of Tarantino, the dialogue may be sharp and witty, but is in no way naturalistic or a reflection of how people genuinely converse. That isn’t a bad thing though, and actually feels consistent with a piece that is stylistically contrived (such as the out of place interludes to portray how many days Jim has left to pay), and though Wyatt has made a tangible attempt to be innovative, and deserves commendation as a result, in this case it simply doesn’t pay off for him.