He Had Become The Still Center Of That Spinning Wheel Of Misfortune: Croupier (1998)

Predating Fight Club by at least a year and emerging as a film well before Clive Owen would become a household name in the world of acting, Croupier exists as a well-executed low-fi film about the sleazy world of gambling and urban London, while also focusing on the inherent misgivings of humanity.  Told in a first-person narrative style, this has all the hipness of Fincher's now famous film, minus the theatrics and intense visuals of Fight Club.  Of course, this detachment from such intensity does not make this film any less cinematic, in fact, I would argue on some accounts it is a superior film to Fight Club, especially in its depictions of some of the lesser respectable individuals in society.  The narrative provides viewers with a suave and seemingly infallible protagonist who navigates through life as though he were predestined to succeed at ever corner, yet in the careful hands of director Mike Hodges viewers are reminded that this seemingly perfect man is always on the verge of complete collapse should any of his carefully placed tiles fall under his heavy moral weight.  Croupier is surprisingly void of law enforcement throughout and exists as a film where an individual is demanded to engage their protagonist with their own predisposed philosophies and emotions, helping to create a film that is both reawatchable and constantly evolving as a viewer returns to its gritty, yet heavily emotive concept.  Croupier does not paint humanity in a particularly optimistic light, but this could be a result of the world it chooses to study, one that it inherently attached to the sins and iniquities of society, one where money, greed and vice seem assured of success.  As such when the narrative does decide to introduce a notion of law and rules into its equation, the results are quite intense and problematic, never being completely resolved, but only slightly altered to assure temporary complacency.  Croupier as a film provides for an essential example of all the good that can come from low-budget filmmaking both in its stylistic approaches, as well as the opportunities it affords to provide a disconcerting reflection of viewers own failures and delusions.

Croupier centers on the life of aspiring author Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) the super hip ladies man who sees those in his world as stepping stones to his own success, and in hopes of finding inspiration for a best-selling book agrees to return to the world of gambling as a blackjack dealer and roulette croupier, something he is exceptionally good at, particularly when it comes to catching crooks and cheats.  His girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee) is quite opposed to his lifestyle change firstly, because it means that their time spent together is greatly diminished and, secondly, that it will detract from his true passion to become a writer.  Jack seems quite indifferent to it all and undertakes his job with zeal realizing that the loathsome people moving through the den of sin, as he refers to it, are perfect inspiration for his writing, as well as the very co-workers and bosses he meets along the way, specifically the troublingly sexual Bella (Kate Hardie) and the against-the-world minded Matt (Paul Reynolds).  Although Jack is quite aware of the rules against fraternizing with punters (gamblers) or hooking up with employees he nonetheless does both, receiving an high paying job opportunity via one wealthy client named Jani de Valliers (Alex Kingston) for whom he begins to fall for romantically.  Even with this in mind and the eventual loss of Marion to vengeful gamblers, Jack manages to escape with only minor bruises and emotional injuries, taking nobody with him and sparring no expenses when he finally publishes his memoir, anonymously, about the bleak world of being a croupier.  Even though his book is a best-seller he avoids changing his lifestyle after realizing that the entire set-up was part of a larger con to help his father earn money.  Yet, Jack cannot deny his new level of transcendence to gambling in the films vibrant closing scene, he fancies himself the immovable center of a spinning wheel of contingency and chance, completely unaffected by any result of the balls veritable landing.

It is challenging then to consider how ethics work in a film where even the protagonist, who is relatively ethical, manages to disassociate himself with such ideals when it proves profitable.  Much of Jack's persona is influenced my his refusal to gamble on anything, whether it be in the literal sense of playing cards or in the grander sense of venturing into an unfamiliar job field.  Jack seems to see the world as a constant set of probabilities, in which he has learned to navigate through a set of often grounded stereotypes and assumptions about the world around him and when he is misguided by one of his notions, he quickly learns from the mistake and adapts it to his next encounter, particularly the case with Jani, which begins as a matter of her seducing him into a dangerous job, but results in his own personal advancement when he realizes he can secure safety from the world around him.  At this point it seems as though ethics become a thing of relativity to being caught, for example, both Bella and Jack smoke pot one night, but it happens to fall on Bella to be drug-tested the next day leading to her firing.  Jack knows the probability of this happening to be slim thus making the ethical act of doing so less serious, but, nonetheless, present.  Yet when it concerns helping punters cheat he does so only once knowing that between the cameras and lecherous behavior of his co-workers and customers that the probability of being caught is quite high.  However, what is likely the greatest reminder in the films is that even when one thinks that the odds are entirely in their favor that one can still be beaten, as Jack learns when he loses to his father in the hand that really mattered, even if he won ever other contest prior to date, the fact of the matter is that sometimes luck really is a factor. This helps Jack disconnect from the woe and assumptions of the world around him, knowing that to be in complete control of the world, one must necessarily dismiss all ideas of control.  The closing scene is a nirvana inducing bliss in which Jack transcends the spin of worries and probability to live in a actuality all his own.

Key Scene:  The opening shot is so simple and paired with Jack's narrative it helps to foreshadow the philosophical evolution which will take place in the following narrative, it truly is quite exceptional.

I watched this on DVD and its quality was stellar, although it is available to watch instantly on Netflix so that may be the best course of action for most to view this necessary piece of cinema.

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