This shows admirable restraint on the part of director Richard Kwietniowski, since the script by Maurice Chauvet, based on an extraordinary true-life tale, concerns a man with a massive gambling addiction – and some of the action even takes place in Las Vegas.
But where Scorsese set out to show the spectacular scale of the casinos and their intricate functioning both on and off the gaming floor, Owning Mahowny is a proudly intimate, psychological study. And it all spins out from the devastating statement of denial often spoken by Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman): "I don't have a gambling problem, I have a financial problem".
Kwietniowski must have looked back far beyond Scorsese to a classic about another little man rorting the system and suffering the personal consequences of this transgression: Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945). Like Edward G. Robinson in that bleak testament to obsession, Mahowny works in a bank, and is a seemingly loyal employee.
The world around Mahowny is sketched in simple, unfussy terms – simply furnished rooms, polite conversations. Nothing in his actions really betrays, in a melodramatic way, the intense emotion that he desperately invests into gambling.
Only the small gestures are telling – as in a gripping scene where Mahowny instructs a companion to keep a stash of chips and not give them back to him for any reason, and then, a couple of seconds later in screen time, comes back violently begging for these funds.
In this kind of story, the secondary characters tend to fit a few predictable archetypes. In The Cooler, the casino manager (played by Alec Baldwin) was a violent, Faustian figure prone to raving about the "good old days" of pre-corporate gambling.
Here, the corresponding role of Victor, superbly incarnated by John Hurt, is a very different and far more subtle character. His drive to keep Mahowny in his casino at all costs is not merely mercenary, but springs from a very real curiosity about the motives and means of this softly spoken master gambler.
Similarly, the anti-hero's girlfriend is not the usual whore-with-a-heart-of-gold. Belinda (Minnie Driver), a co-worker from the bank, struggles to grasp the extent of Mahowny's sickness and its deep effects upon his every action and reaction. Trying to get a weekend's intimacy, let alone a moment of truth, out of this guy is a Herculean task.
Even the low-life criminal figures (led by Maury Chaykin as Frank) on the margins of the story are not typical, menacing heavies. Like everyone else in this plot, they are concerned with the mundane obligations of phone calls, appointments and the bothersome logistics of illicit money-transfer. A scene in which Mahowny has to get Frank to the airport to sign a document is particularly rich in understated humour.
Kwietniowski has taken a quantum leap as a director since his intriguing but heavy-handed Love and Death on Long Island (1997), which also featured Hurt. At the beginning, one can wonder whether his fondness for off-centre details (such as inserts of feet or objects in the decor) will derail the smooth functioning of the narrative. But by the end we realise how acutely he is able to mine the almost psychoanalytic dimension of this material.
Ultimately, Owning Mahowny belongs to Hoffman. In less than a decade he has fallen into a certain kind of typecasting: the neurotic, obsessive loser on a trigger-edge of violence or psychosis, inarticulate and fumbling in his relationships with others. Kwietniowski does this great actor a big favour here: he gently takes the bombastic, ultra-American edge off Hoffman's portrayal of this sort of character, and lets us really study what makes such a troubled person tick.
© Adrian Martin July 2004