This Is How They Lose: The Gambler's Tragedy
There are movies about gambling, and there are movies about gamblers. 21 and Casino Royale are movies about gambling. Rounders is a movie about gambling, though for a few fascinating sequences, it’s also a movie about a gambler (Worm). Casino and Ocean’s 11 and Hard Eight are movies that sometimes pretend to be about gambling, but are really about Las Vegas, and they succeed mostly because they know the difference. But every once in a while, a great movie about a gambler comes along – and like a gut-shot draw or an inside tip on a 50-to-1 underdog, you just can’t lay it down until it wrecks you.
Warning: This essay contains discussion of important plot details in Uncut Gems, California Split, and Mississippi Grind. Movies about gamblers understand one simple fact that movies about gambling often don’t: winning has nothing to do with winning. The best movies about gamblers, from California Split to Mississippi Grind to The Gambler, are movies about addiction. The best of these understand addiction. They understand what drives it and what it costs. They understand that the gambler’s journey is not about grinding through the lows just to revel in the highs; no, they get that an addict lives for those low moments, when everything seems lost, when they’re one poor decision from toppling over the edge. In the opening and closing sequences to the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems – a movie about a gambler – the camera dives inside Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a showy exploration of the man underneath the rattle-mouthed diamond dealer and his connection to the cosmos. For the two hours in between, though, the Safdie Brothers avail themselves of a far more prosaic tool to even greater effect: visual isolation. Howard is repeatedly separated in the frame from the very people with whom he seeks a connection. His world is non-stop busy, but whether it’s the diamond display in his showroom, the heavy desk in his office, or even a big yellow taxi in the middle of the street, it’s a cacophonous loneliness. Because Uncut Gems understands that human connection is one cost of addiction. In a third act sequence that pulsates with the lustful desperation of a gambler’s last chance, the filmmakers literally quarantine the other characters from Howard, leaving him alone with his addiction. And as I wrote when the movie first came out, Uncut Gems knows that for a man like Howard Ratner, winning is the beginning of the end. In that sense, it joins a small but distinguished collection of films that explore gamblers and the futility of winning.
Unlike Uncut Gems, past examinations of this phenomenon have often been anchored around a pair of gamblers – call them friendships borne out of necessity. Relationships limited by their source, each person serving not as a genuine partner, but as a tether to humanity, a facsimile of personal connection. In Robert Altman’s California Split, gambling forms the connection between Bill (George Segal) and Charlie (Elliott Gould). Bill, a down-and-out loser who hates his day job, is attracted to the vivacity of Charlie, who, on the flip-side, sees George as his good luck charm. Despite his demeanor at the table (or the tracks) and the women he surrounds himself with, Charlie lacks close friends, and in George he finds a partner. In Mississippi Grind, the chance encounter is the same: an initial run-in on the felt, followed by a (supposedly) fortuitous meeting at a bar. The return to this classic formula emphasizes the relationship between betting and booze – the addict’s choice is not one or the other, but both. Where else can a man so reliably drown his sorrows? And as in California Split, the initial connection rests on the attraction to the flip-side of the same coin. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), the down-on-his luck loner who can’t catch a break, is drawn into the orbit of Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), who inhabits a world seemingly teeming with life and energy. And for all the women and friends and trouble that seem to surround Curtis, he sees in Gerry something he lacks: a companion. Both movies have a firm grip on the fault in their pairs’ premises: a friendship formation does not make a friendship foundation. Gambling brought these men to each other, but it need not be the glue that holds them together. On their road trip to New Orleans in Mississippi Grind, Curtis escapes his own commitment problems by investing in Gerry’s problems, acting as a sponge to soak up his new partner’s rants and ravings. And accompanied by Curtis’s brash optimism, Gerry finds hope in his own situation. In California Split, George discovers in Charlie an escape from his listlessness, a reason to get back up one more time after being knocked down by the monotony of his life. In short, the men find solace in connection. One strength of both these movies and Uncut Gems is their willingness to slow things down. As their gamblers lurch forward – sometimes hurtling, sometimes fitfully starting and stopping – each takes the time to stop and emphasize the relationships that become collateral damage in the vortex of addiction.
In Uncut Gems, Howard visits his family for a Passover seder. Daniel Lopatin’s otherwise relentless score lets up, Darius Khondji’s shaky, constantly moving camera finds a modicum of stability, and Howard is confronted with the pain that his actions have caused. In a scene that lingers far after the closing credits, Howard’s soon-to-be ex-wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) rebuffs his sincere attempts to win her back, telling him in the middle of a chilling silence that she “think[s] he is the most annoying person” she has ever met. This brief detour from his otherwise continuous downward spiral emphasizes the simple tragedy of addiction – it alienates the very people that could help us find happiness and escape the vicious circle. California Split and Mississippi Grind take similar routes, using centerpiece sequences with a pair of prostitutes to highlight the simplicity of what their antiheroes have been missing. But their differences are meaningful. In Split, George and Charlie spend a night with Charlie’s roommate (and sometimes-lover) Barbara and her working-girl friend Ann. The foursome remains together for much of the evening, and with that decision, Altman and former-gambler-turned-screenwriter Joseph Walsh successfully capture the solidarity that these men have been missing, the camaraderie that could bind them, and the briefest glimmer of hope that they’ve found something meaningful. In Grind, on the other hand, Curtis and Gerry are separated, each spending the night with a woman – Curtis with his former lover, Simone, and Gerry with Simone’s fellow prostitute, Vanessa. It’s notable that both men look to these women more as a shoulder to lean on than a warm body to sleep with – in this way, writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck undermine expectations and drive home the emotional immaturity of their gamblers. The sequence carries a note of longing, and it’s clear that Gerry and Curtis are unwilling to share this vulnerability with each other. They rely on their common addiction to unite them, ignoring the shared pain that lies beneath. And that is the common thread connecting Mississippi Grind and California Split: the use of relationships to foment addiction rather than to offer alternatives. In both, one man refers to the other as his “good luck charm,” offering a convenient excuse for pairing up and returning to the tables, the track, the adrenaline rush that they so voraciously crave. After the midpoint diversions into their shared humanity, both duos careen headlong toward the ultimate disappointment facing every gambler. And rather than their connection helping to extinguish their addiction, it’s the other way around; their dedication to gambling kills their budding relationship.
In Uncut Gems, we feel that loss and loneliness more viscerally. The Safdie brothers put audiences in Howard’s head, forcing us to feel the sacrifices he makes. With each successive half-sincere promise comes a new, inevitable letdown, and to anyone who has been or known a compulsive gambler, Howard’s actions are intimately recognizable. Rather than offer a Yin to his Yang, Gems instead shows the parade of formers that had at some point built a connection with Howard, only to have it severed by his deepening addiction. By centering their story on one man instead of two, the Safdies magnify the pain, though the result is no different. And if Howard seems too much like unrestrained id to possibly resemble a flesh-and-blood human, one need only to glance back at his predecessors to identify the cloth from which he’s cut. As with Curtis from Grind and Charlie from Split, Howard’s raw magnetism stems from the mental escapism that his addiction has created. He talks a mile a minute and he never stops moving – a black hole of a man who keeps friends, lovers, and enemies swirling around him, always threatening to suck them in. It’s no coincidence we meet both Curtis and Charlie at the poker table, populated with reflective, somber players, as they each spout off to the dealer and fellow players, using their charm to avoid getting stuck in their own heads for too long. Howard’s is a different type of charisma, but is borne from the same desperate need to keep out the silence. All three men crave action, in every sense of the word. And it’s no coincidence that all three men get punched in the face – and that all three of them deserve it, and, in some sense, may have wanted it. Howard’s tissue-stuffed nose even resembles Charlie’s famously bandaged face. Howard is just missing the George to his Charlie, the Gerry to his Curtis (even the first letters of their names are the same). He has no sad-sack, low-energy, nobody-left-in-his-life sucker to keep around to make him feel good. If these movies were about gambling, they might end differently. One pair might take home a massive haul, seed money to start their new lives. Another might lose it all, forcing them to pack up and head home to their wives, kids, friends – whoever. But Uncut Gems, California Split, and Mississippi Grind are not movies about gambling; they are movies about gamblers. And for gamblers, remember, winning is not winning – it is the death-blow struck against their constant need for the next rush. Gerry and Curtis hit it big in New Orleans and immediately part ways, Gerry realizing that victory won’t earn him his family back, and Curtis understanding that an expanded bankroll doesn’t satisfy his lust for the thrill. George and Charlie strike gold in a Reno casino, only to see George immediately walk away from it all, drained of all life, fully aware that without the thirst for the next score, he has no connection to his supposed best buddy. And the moment Howard Ratner finally makes good on one of his parlay bets – well, it signals more than just the death of his libido. “This is how I win,” says Howard Ratner to Kevin Garnett, late in Uncut Gems. But gamblers don’t win, can’t win – even when their bets are good. Because addiction, like the house, always wins.