If I have to choose one definite moment in “Owning Mahowny”(2003), it is the one which shows its hero’s face in a close-up shot when he is going through his another gambling. His face looks blank on the surface, but his eyes are fixed on the table, busily looking for the next shot of thrill he is craving for. He may be aware of the risk and the consequence somewhere in the corner of his mind, but he cannot help himself, and he will go on and on, until he finally reaches to a certain point where he can be stopped by something stronger than his insatiable urge.
To many people around him, Dan Mahowny(Philip Seymour Hoffman) looks like an average good guy who works hard in some prominent bank in Toronto, Canada. Recently promoted to assistant branch manager, he is mostly regarded well by his bosses for his impeccable work record, and they trust him enough to let him handle several accounts of their wealthiest clients. He also has a caring girlfriend who works in the same bank, and Belinda(Minnie Driver) has seriously thought about marriage, but her man does not seem to think a lot about that even when they are about to live together. With his anonymous clothes, big glasses, and shabby car, this nerdy guy looks even plainer than his plain-looking girlfriend, and it looks like he does not have much space for his private life.
However, as told in the opening scene, Mahowny has a secret problem he has managed to hide from others. He is an addicted gambler, and he must take care of his large debt to be collected by his bookie Frank Perlin(Maury Chaykin) right now. Perlin is a sleazy guy who would welcome any money he can get from his gamblers, but he does not like to do an inconvenient job of visiting and pressing Mahowny. As a matter of fact, he is so sick of Mahowny’s increasing gambling debt that he even considers suspending his dealing with Mahowny for a while.
Of course, Mahowny does not want that, so he resorts to stealing the money from his bank for clearing his debt. He steals only $10,300 through fake loan application at first, but, once he sees how easily he can steal money from his bank without getting any suspicion from others, his mind follows the next logical step; he steals more money and then flies to Atlantic City during weekend for bigger gambling and bigger thrill, and this soon becomes his weekend routine as he steals and gambles more and more.
Based on a real-life story of a bank manager responsible for the biggest one-man bank fraud in the Canadian history(as mentioned in the film, he stole $ 10.2 million in total for his gambling), the movie is effective as a close, realistic look at gambling addiction, and it keeps itself sticking tightly to its hero’s view for giving us the clear understanding of his addicted mind. Like any other kinds of addicts, Mahowny is constantly dominated by his vice, and we see how his daily life virtually revolves around it. At one point, he cannot afford to spend more time with her girlfriend just because of his another weekend in Atlantic City, and we also get an absurd moment when he hurriedly asks a bookie to bet on all the home teams in one league and all the away teams in the other league because he does not have enough time for betting on each game.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, a great talented actor who left us too early in last month, masterfully holds our attention through the effortless embodiment of his compulsive character. Never stepping back from his character’s many negative sides, Hoffman subtly reveals the urge and the thrill pulsating behind his character’s low-key appearance through small gestures and movements in his finely tuned performance, and we fully understand what drives his character into such self-destructive behaviors. Once he begins, Mahowny cannot stop himself until he is confirmed again that he is completely defeated with no chip in his possession. Sometime he wins, but then it leads to another gamble he cannot simply resist. To him, the matter is not whether he wins or loses but how much more he can gamble, and that is all he care about in his gambling.
With his withdrawn appearance, Mahowny initially did not draw much attention on his first day in Atlantic City, but, as he brings more money into the casino, he gets noticed by Victor Foss(John Hurt), the wily casino manager who recognizes the type while observing Mahowny through his security cameras and is ready to suck all the money from Mahowny(“he’s a purist!”, he exclaims with amused delight). As a guy with lots of experience in his business field, Foss has probably seen guys like Mahowny, but, like others, he cannot help but be fascinated with that intense single-mindedness of his lucrative prey, who concentrates on gambling for hours and hours while never minding about anything Foss willingly offers to him – except barbecued ribs without sauce, perhaps.
While all these things happen, Mahowny manages to cover his crime from others, but Belinda begins to realize that her man has a really serious problem. At one point, he takes her to Las Vegas, and she is impressed by a big hotel room reserved for them, but, what do you know, she is left alone in the room for a long time while he is gambling at the casino. She later finds him at the casino and asks him to go back to their room with her, but his mind is so occupied with his gambling that he does not seem to be conscious of her or passing time at all.
With Maurice Chauvet’s screenplay based on Gary Stephen Ross’ non-fiction book “Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony”, the director Richard Kwietniowski made an engaging character study not entirely without humor in its unflinching depiction of the hopeless downward spiral experienced by its hero. Sometimes we cringe at how blindingly Mahowny is driven by his impulse while ruining his life and career step by step, and sometimes we are amused by how far his problem goes beyond his control. When he is approaching to the final destination literally waiting for him, he is so consumed by what he experienced hours before that he is unbelievably oblivious to what’s going on around him – and he is still mired in that pathetic self-denial of his(“I have a… financial problem. A shortfall.”).
With Hoffman’s gripping performance as its central force, the movie is as single-mindedly focused as its hero, and the main task of the supporting actors surrounding Hoffman is more or less than responding to Hoffman’s character. Among them, John Hurt has the most fun with his deliciously amoral character; Foss may have some pretty good idea about how the hell an ordinary bank manager from Toronto can gamble with such a large amount of money, but he does not mind as long as money is rolled into the vault of his casino, and he even provides Mahowny a more convenient way of transferring money to his casino.
Although her character feels like a functional role, Minnie Driver has a couple of crucial scenes with Hoffman. Belinda tries to accept her boyfriend’s gambling habit as a minor diversion, but there comes an inevitable point when she decides that enough is enough, and Hoffman and Driver have a painful moment when Belinda confronts Mahowny to have some serious talk about his gambling habit. Maury Chaykin and Vincent Corazza are small-time bookies who unintentionally lead Mahowny into his eventual downfall, and Chris Collins is Foss’ expendable employee who gets a little friendly to Mahowny and tells him(and us) about how casinos manipulate their customers in rather sneaky ways(yes, folks, as said by others many times before, the house always wins).
As a small gem which has been somewhat overlooked since its theatrical release in 2003, “Owning Mahowny” has one of best works in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s illustrious career, which is one of several good reasons why it is highly recommendable. Mahowny is not a good man, but Hoffman makes him into a memorable case study with recognizable human behaviors, and he and the movie give us a sober, uncompromising presentation of an addicted mind. Whether it is alcohol or drug or any other kinds of addiction, addicts are driven to get it by any means necessary, and they can be quite reckless and thoughtless for their pursuit for the next fix – and they are usually helpless in their repeated cycles.
Later in the movie, Mahowny’s psychiatrist asks him how much excitement he can get from gambling on a scale of 1 to 100, and Mahowny promptly answers 100. When the psychiatrist asks him about the most excitement he has ever experienced outside of gambling, he answers 20. As told in the epilogue, he eventually learns to live only with 20 for the rest of his life, but he pays a very big price for that.
Oh, so he is no more! He was a lovable actor, capable of portraying complexity. I recall my exciting encounters with “3 cards” many years ago…..
SC: At least we will see his last performances in several upcoming films in this year and next year.