The 1998 British film Croupier, only now getting a limited American release, was made well before the recent Reindeer Games, but comparing them is too delicious an opportunity to bash Hollywood to let pass by. Both have the same conceit of their cores: a Christmas Eve casino heist. In Hollywood’s eyes, this is a chance to show us Santas with machine guns running amuck, and not much else. In the hands of legendary British director Mike Hodges, who made the 1971 classic Get Carter, and equally legendary screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, who wrote The Man Who Fell to Earth, it becomes a spare, seductive, almost novelistic suspense drama in which the biggest crime is its protagonist’s misunderstanding of himself.
Jack Manfred (the brilliant Clive Owen) is a frustrated writer, unable to find his subject. His publisher wants him to knock out a high-concept soccer novel, but try as he might, hack work is not for him. Reluctantly, Jack takes a job as a croupier, or dealer, at London’s Golden Lion Casino, at the behest of his father, who arranged the job interview for his son. Jack grew up in the casinos of South Africa’s Sun City, and has worked as a dealer before — his hands fly over the chips and cards with studied speed and ease, and his low opinion of gamblers obviously comes from first-hand knowledge. But Jack’s past is never more than hinted at — even the suggestion that he may have had his own problems with gambling is never more than bare innuendo, though it’s a notion that becomes tantalizing in retrospect.
Like many, or maybe even most, writers, Jack is a “detached voyeur,” he tells us in his cool, observant narration that runs through the film. Narration rarely feels like anything but a cop-out on film, a cheat that lets the story tell us what it should be showing us. But Jack’s running commentary works here because it’s vital to our understanding of his self-delusion — while we never doubt that Jack firmly believes everything he tells us about himself, by the end of the film we do find ourselves wondering how well Jack actually knows himself. In life, Jack says, you’re either a croupier or a gambler — you’re either in control, or you aren’t. Jack’s girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee: The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Notting Hill) — who’s probably more in love with the idea of being in love with a writer than she is in love with Jack — plants herself firmly in the gambling camp when she tells Jack, “I’m betting on you.” But is Jack the in-control dealer he imagines he is, or is he, unbeknownst to himself, a gambler as well?
Jack begins to find inspiration for his writing in his work: in the recklessness of gamblers, in his belief that “gambling is about not facing reality.” As he begins work on a new book about this underworld, he grows even more assured of his mastery over his own life, so much so that he agrees to help a desperate bettor, Jani de Villiers (Alex Kingston), help her creditors pull off a daring robbery of the casino — as long as he has all the angles covered, he figures, he’ll be safe.
Croupier is so internal a film that we’re with Jack all the way, like how readers intimately identify with the narrator of a first-person novel. There are no pretty shots of the Thames at night or Hyde Park on a sunny Sunday to be found here — there’s little to remind us that we’re not actually in Jack’s head with him. Most of the film takes place in claustrophobic interiors: Jack and Marion’s small basement apartment, crowded tube trains, and the Golden Lion Casino, in which the mirrored walls only serve to emphasize how cramped and dingy the room is. At points, it’s difficult to tell if Jack’s imagination hasn’t taken over — when he goes to meet Jani, at her wits’ end, for final instructions for the robbery, is “Journey’s End Hotel” actually stencilled on the door of her building, or is that just a writer’s fancy, supplying a delicious metaphor for the situation?
“There’s no hope in it,” Marion complains in despair after she has read the beginning of Jack’s gambling novel. “It’s the truth,” he says with a shrug. Though Croupier doesn’t leave Jack exactly hopeless, it does leave us wondering how the hard truths he learned about himself will hit him. I can’t imagine him taking it well at all.