Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Just in time for Runner Runner, we deal five movies about gamblers.
Owning Mahowny (2003)
Movies about gambling addiction have to walk a tricky line. On the one hand, it’s an addiction like any other, and the law of averages dictates that it’ll ruin the life (or at least the financial solvency) of anyone who suffers from it. On the other hand, it’s a peculiarly exhilarating addiction, because it’s rooted in the brain’s insatiable desire for hits of dopamine. A drug user who gets his fix can finally relax, at least until the high wears off; the compulsive gambler can never relax, because a big win only boosts the craving for the next big win. Owning Mahowny, based on a true story about a Canadian bank manager who embezzled millions of dollars to feed his habit, finds just the right balance between those two irreconcilable aspects, examining the title character’s ugly downward spiral while acknowledging—albeit in an unusually subtle way, especially for an American movie—the queasy thrill that he experiences en route, even when losing.
As Mahowny, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives one of the cagiest performances on record. Gamblers in movies are usually either flamboyant (see: Elliott Gould and George Segal in California Split) or cold and calculating (prototype: Edward G. Robinson in The Cincinnati Kid). Mahowny is neither, despite having earned the nickname “Iceman.” He simply places bets, one after the other, as many as he can, with the same calm equanimity as the dealer. When things go badly, his breathing gets a bit shallower, and he keeps pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose; after finally going on a massive winning streak, stacking racks of chips worth about $9 million, the most he’ll allow himself is the faintest of smirks. Deep down, perhaps, he knows what the movie does, and what the oily casino manager (John Hurt) certainly does: that it doesn’t matter, because the gambling will continue so long as he has access to money, and in the long run, barring sophisticated card-counting strategies (which Mahowny doesn’t employ), the house can’t lose. Owning Mahowny is the rare portrait of self-destruction that understands how liberating it can feel.
Availability: Owning Mahowny is only available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix’s disc delivery service.