Casino (1995)

Directed by Martin Scorsese


Martin Scorsese has said (according to IMDB trivia) that this movie has no plot, and though a lot happens, I can see what he’s saying.  Everything in this movie is fairly predictable (both the rise and the fall) but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.  Having already seen Goodfellas, I had an expectation for how this story would unfold.  There would be a lot of money, violence and excess before the eventual bloody fallout.  Like that film, Casino relies on character narration though this time the omniscient perspective comes from both Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and his hot tempered buddy, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci).

The film begins with Sam telling the audience about the importance of trust before getting into a car that explodes, suggesting that he trusted the wrong people.  We then go back ten or so years earlier when Sam was new to Las Vegas.  He had proven himself to be a good gambler, and with some mafia help was eventually put in charge of his own casino.  Nicky is sent to protect Sam since he has helped make the mob so much money.  But Nicky, feeling liberated by all the miles between him and the other powers that be, gets a little reckless.  He gets himself banned from every casino in Las Vegas and resorts to burglary to make money.

A rift grows between them as Sam tries to keep the heat off himself, but his association with Nicky tarnishes his reputation.

While things are going well for Sam, he meets and marries Ginger (Sharon Stone), a former prostitute.  He mentions trust to her multiple times and leaves her $2 million in a bank that only she can access.  Their relationship begins to sower, predictably, as it was all based on money and materialism.

Ginger tries to run away from Sam multiple times, and she eventually has an affair with Nicky which only adds to the frustrations the mob has with him.  Nicky is eventually killed in brutal fashion after a number of other mob members have themselves been murdered.  Ginger ends up dead from a drug overdose, and Sam survives the car bomb we saw in the beginning of the film.  He goes back to his roots, gambling on his own and making money for other people.

The whole film is like watching someone light a match and then hold onto it too long so that it quickly burns down until it singes their fingertips.  For a moment you might have been hypnotized by the simple flame, but what else did you think was going to happen?

Everything in this film is set up to fail, possibly because of our own familiarity Goodfellas and movies in general or because we saw Sam appear to die in the opening minutes of the film, signaling that this won’t end well.  Nicky is so clearly unhinged that you know he’s going to get himself and Sam into trouble.  It’s also Joe Pesci, and all his characters carry that burden.

Then, Ginger has the same feeling.  She is so driven by money and jewels that you know her loyalties won’t side with Sam for long.  He even seems to know this but goes through with the marriage anyways.  He claims to want to settle down and have a family, and he seems convinced he can make Ginger love him over time.  He tells her that their relationship has to be built on a foundation of mutual respect and that from this respect, love can grow.  At the same time he knows how materialistic she is, and he’s very familiar with her background.  In another voiceover, at their wedding, he says he doesn’t care about her history.  He knows the importance of trust in a relationship, but he’s so desperate to trust someone that his ‘trust’ is really just ignorance.  It might speak to a deeper insecurity in his character, but that lifestyle has to be unsatisfying in the end, right?

Sure, some people are driven by money, but I’ve always felt like such motivations run thin over time.  When I think about young wealthy people, I imagine that their wealth comes form doing something that makes them happy, and if it doesn’t, well then they will hit a wall at some point because money can’t be everything.  And as I’m writing this, I realize my image of old wealth is Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane.  He becomes wealthy and powerful, but he dies yearning for his childhood.  I can’t believe I haven’t made that connection until now, but that’s what I think of when I imagine a wealthy old man.  Not Warren Buffett or Richard Branson, but Charles Foster Kane.

So I’m coming at this film from my perspective, which is that money isn’t everything.  And I think a lot of people feel the same way.  It seems universal to recognize that life extends beyond money, and Scorsese depicts this both in Goodfellas and Casino by making sure you see the violent fallout from the way these characters live.  They can only bend the rules so many times until they’re punished.

I know that Martin Scorsese is strongly Catholic, and on one hand I find it surprising that such a devoutly faithful person can stomach so much violence in his own films.  When I think of a religious person, I think of a nonviolent person.  But Mel Gibson makes movies that are all about religion (right?) and are intensely violent.  Think of The Passion of the Christ and Hacksaw Ridge for example.  Scorsese almost made The Last Temptation of Christ, so there’s some overlap there.

What I’m getting at is that there is a relationship between religion and violence in these two directors’ films.  That isn’t to say that they condone the violence, but there’s some connection there.  The bible has some pretty violent stories, as far as I can remember, and maybe Scorsese sees his films as a safe place to show this violence.  It’s also a punishment for characters in his films who gleefully commit incredibly violent acts.  What’s odd is that I imagine Scorsese falling in love with his characters, particularly Joe Pesci’s characters, but in Goodfellas and Casino, Pesci gets arguably the most brutal death scene.  It’s like Scorsese loves this guy but then distances himself from him by saying “yeah, yeah, I know, he’s gotta go.”  These two films are based on real stories, to some degree, so it’s not like Scorsese is deciding these characters’ fates so much as he is determining how best to show them.

The violence in his films often feel symbolic.  There are so many brutal murders but also cartoonishly absurd deaths.  Each murder feels unique, whether in terms of the method of murder or how the body falls when it hits the ground.  This almost makes the violence feel more respectful than a nondescript gunshot like in any number of action films.  Everyone lives their own way and dies their own way.

So what else is there to add?  I don’t know all that much about Scorsese, but it seems like his life might be the furthest thing from a mob story.  I’m speculating here, but based on his religious ideologies and rigorous (I imagine) work ethic, it would seem to be that he’s so interested in mob and crime stories because they’re fantastical to him, like Star Wars is to so many people.

With Casino, then, there really isn’t that much of a plot, but instead just characters walking the plank to their inevitable demise.  This gives Scorsese a chance to have fun and play in this environment, with hug stacks of money, chain-smoking, bright casino lights, bright blood, cursing and Joe Pesci-isms.  He doesn’t worry about the end result of each character because it doesn’t matter so much.  You know where this story is going, and he makes that clear by showing you what happens to Sam right upfront.  Of course, this turns out to be a misdirection, but either way, Sam’s life as it is in Casino ends even if he isn’t killed.  In a final voiceover, he describes how the casinos were taken over by corporations and everything was made into a theme park.  In other words, the world of this film no longer exists, and Sam’s and Nicky’s environment died with them.  He speaks fondly of this time like it was a utopia even though what we see is a hyper-violent world in which everyone suffers in the end.  Maybe it’s because Sam is still too trusting that he imagines this time to be so perfect.  In his head, were it to happen again, he wouldn’t slip up.  What seems inevitable to the viewer (based on the character-types and their inherent volatility) never seemed set in stone to him.  I guess Sam is an optimist.

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