directed by Mike Hodges
(Shooting Gallery, 1998)

When people talk about the evils of gambling, it always seems to be focused on the Vegas, high-rolling, gambling-addict money gambling. There's plenty of that in Croupier, a 1998 British film that's finally made it here. But that money gambling is only the tip of the iceberg.

There's taking moral chances. Gambling with your own dreams. Gambling with the lives of others. And in Croupier, that's where the danger lies.

Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) is a croupier, a casino employee who mans a gambling table, and it's in his blood. Born in a South African casino, Jack's father is an erstwhile gambler, a habitual liar, an incurable deal-maker. And who knows where his long-suffering, fed-up mother has fled.

What Jack really wants to be is a writer -- and in London, with a lovely girlfriend and a struggling writing career, he has a chance. But then his father calls, offering him connections to some steady casino employment, and Jack finds himself slowly getting sucked back into the addiction.

He doesn't gamble, he says, and, indeed, he never takes the chips in hand. But Jack is addicted -- to watching other people lose, to collecting experiences as sources for his book, to living his life without emotional attachment and in a black-and-white moral way that's devoid of any real moral conviction.

His ideal moment: when he feels like the center of the roulette wheel, immobile, with everyone spinning around him, with the odds changing and leaving him untouched.

The croupier, he observes, is in charge of everything.

His girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee, Notting Hill) wants to live with a writer, not a croupier. She doesn't understand the casino's pull.

When Jack's moral choices become complicated, when he begins living his life as his book's protagonist, when he begins seeking experiences solely because they'd be good for his writing, his world, for someone who refuses to gamble money, becomes one huge bet. Gamblers don't have a subconsious need to destroy themselves, Jack theorizes. They have a need to play with the lives of others, to destroy others, to betray others.

Croupier isn't about plot so much as it's about the casino milieu, the lives of people who aren't what they seem but who live life by the odds. Director Mike Hodges has done this brilliantly before, in an early-1970s movie, Get Carter, with Michael Caine. His pacing this time is perfect, revealing portions of Jack and his world only when necessary, and not to the other characters.

It's all about atmosphere, about unreadable people. Nothing is explained, motivations aren't laid out. People do what they do, period.

Owen was a great choice as the unreadable Jack, with a face that borders on handsome and registers little emotion. It's a role that demands connection with the audience -- to a point -- but it's a connection that must be doled out carefully and can't be too sympathetic. And Owen captures Jack's need to be in control in a way that makes the audience as much a voyeur into his life as he is an observer of others.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 29 September 2001

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