TWO STARS - Unsettling

The addiction of gambling has destroyed many lives.  Willing to sacrifice careers and lovers, finances and futures, such individuals are trapped by their own obsession.

 Often exceptionally gifted in their ability to win, the individual‘s triumphs only imbed the addiction more deeply into their souls.  As the addiction increases, sincere attempts to stop and live in the joy of normal relationships and careers cannot compare with the adrenaline rushes of the thrills of gambling. 

 Although director John Dahl and writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman present the gambling addiction and the culture which depends upon it in all its horrific despair, their film “Rounders” is nevertheless unsettling.  Their “gambler” wins in the end and heads off into the sunset in search of his dream of becoming the world champion poker player in Vegas.

 This message contradicts both the major theme of the film and the wisdom of their own intuitions.  Having presented a film in which the main character is willing to lie to his lover, destroy his career and risk everything on one hand of poker, they imply that he can achieve his dreams.  For the 4% who become enslaved, gambling is a consuming addiction which leaves its victims destroyed. 

 The central figure of “Rounders” is Mike McDermott (Matt Damon).  As a “rounder”, Mike is an experienced member of the New York City underworld of illegal gambling.  A charming, handsome, intelligent man who is also going to law school, he uses his skills to provide for his tuition and living expenses.  He is in love with a beautiful and faithful woman named Jo (Gretchen Mol).

 One night, having been inspired by his own ability to play a hand with the world champion and win, he decides to take on the notoriously merciless Teddy KGB (John Malkovich).  Having won $30,000 for his tuition and living expenses, Mike takes it all and bets it during a game with Teddy KGB.

 He loses.

 This changes his life.  For nine months, he promises Jo that he will never gamble again and focuses intently on his law school classes.

 But then his old gambling buddy,  Worm (Edward Norton), is released from prison.  Many years earlier, Worm had kept his mouth shut when Mike and Worm had fixed their high school basketball game and Worm was fingered.  Rather than get his sentence lowered by ratting on Mike, he kept quiet and spent several years in prison.  Now he is released and Mike goes to pick him up and help him get started again.

 Worm proves to be the undoing of in Mike’s recovery.  Using his friendship and manipulating everyone, Worm eventually gets Mike to gamble once more.  This causes Jo to leave Mike and it also threatens his success in law school.  When this happens, Mike abandons any of his attempts to get free from his addictionand he jumps back into the mire.

 In a very telling statement to Jo when he is trying to explain to her why he began to gamble again, he says, “For the first time in nine months, when I was sitting at that poker table, I felt alive.”

 This is what makes gambling so destructive.  Although he had spent nine wonderful months with a beautiful, faithful and loving woman, Mike could not enjoy her or his obvious success in law school.  Instead, it all seems dull and lifeless compared to one night at a gambling table.

 Mike’s commitment to Worm is tested to the limit as he becomes ensnared into Worm’s own self-destructive cycle of gambling.  When Worm gets so far into debt that the enforcers of the clubs at which he gambles are threatening his life, Mike steps in to help him.  The consequence is that Mike soon has Worm’s debt on his own head and his own life is threatened.

 This also is the nature of addictions.  Those who try to help are often victims of the fallout, and sometimes pay an even greater price than the addicted person does.

 “Rounders” is an unsettling film because it clearly shows the destructive cycle of gambling and yet glorifies it as well.  The repeated claim that it is a “skill” and not luck seems to be a rationalization offered to those whose lives are consumed with this addiction.  No amount of rationalization or success will satisfy the deeper needs of all of us for love and commitment, self-respect and purpose.

Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 2 STARS, UNSETTLING.