Don’t Think Twice, by David Bax
Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) borrows a lot of money from one dangerous man (Michael Kenneth Williams as Neville) in order to pay a portion of the huge debt he owes to another dangerous man (Alvin Ing as Mister Lee). Neville gives him one week to pay it back or be killed. That’s not the only storyline in Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler but that ticking clock gives the film its tension and parameters. It also invites comparisons to this year’s Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonagh, which also concerns a man who spends a week getting his affairs in order before facing the possibility of death. The Gambler never gets quite as philosophically or psychologically murky as Calvary (though both films are too fond of self-consciously clever dialogue). Still, despite not stacking up in that essentially arbitrary comparison, the film is largely successful by its own tidier and more digestible standards.
Bennett is a grown-up rich kid who wrote one successful novel and now teaches literature at a fictional, prominent college in Los Angeles. He’s very bad at his job, just like he seems to be very bad at everything, largely because he doesn’t care about anything. Perhaps he’s stricken with the severest possible case of affluenza but his choices are self-destructive to the point of being near-suicidal.
Of course, his behavior does have a more sensible explanation, though Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan wisely avoid literalizing it. The Gambler begins with Bennett beside the bed of his grandfather (George Kennedy), having one last final conversation with the man, who is closer to a father than Bennett’s actual, absent dad. Everything that follows can be read as the actions of a man who has become unanchored by grief, casting about until the sea decides to steady or sink him. It’s not dissimilar to the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis from last year, which also spent a week following a man who behaves rashly and erratically following the death of someone close to him.
Bennett may have a nice house, a nice car and a good job but he spends as much time as possible sliding along in the filth of the city’s secret casinos and career criminal hangouts. Wyatt’s vision of an underground Los Angeles of mobsters and other unsavory sorts that runs parallel to the daylight world is like a polished and compacted version of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Grieg Fraser’s cinematography is rich and compelling but it feels a tad too worried over to approximate the verisimilitude of Cassavetes.
But who needs realism when you’ve got such glorious music on the soundtrack? The score is by Jon Brion and Theo Green but the song selections are what really stand out. Like Martin Scorsese, Wyatt picks the perfect songs to augment or reinterpret the impression of the scenes without ever – or almost never – borrowing their emotions wholesale. From Billy Bragg to Dinah Washington to Pulp to M83, the music practically demands equal billing with the stars.
The Gambler, as it turns out, has a lot in common with a lot of other movies. There’s nothing wrong with Wyatt being influenced by the Coens or Cassavetes or Scorsese but there comes a point where a film’s own power and competence – both things this one has in abundance – are overshadowed by all the better films it calls to mind.