Dir. Martin Scorsese
Written by: Martin Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi (from his novel)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone
Despite the fact that he is often associated with films about the mafia in the public imagination, Martin Scorsese has actually only made a handful of films that deal explicitly with organized crime during his lengthy career. Although there has often been an overarching interest in vice and corruption throughout his filmography, the only true mafia films that Scorsese has made are Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. Out of those four films, three stand out as highly significant in the filmmaker’s career, with Mean Streets being his first major film and the arrival of Scorsese as a generational talent, Goodfellas widely being acknowledged as one of his best films, and The Departed being the film for which Scorsese was finally rewarded with an Academy Award. However, Casino tends to get lost in the shuffle among those other milestones, perhaps due to its close temporal proximity in release to Goodfellas, or perhaps due to the perceived similarity of the two films’ subject matter and style. While I wouldn’t say that I’ve been dismissive of the film over the years, I have fallen into the trap of passing it over for other Scorsese films because of its perceived redundancy. People often tend to discuss the film as a Goodfellas-lite, and, to be sure, it isn’t the masterpiece that that other film is, but Casino is an interesting film and worth examining on its own merits. While it shares kinship with many other films from Scorsese’s corpus, it stands out as a distinctive and divergent take on a familiar story. In a lot of ways, the film is a deconstruction of the gangster genre, and while it isn’t totally successful in breaking out of the established mold of the genre, it contains plenty of interesting wrinkles.
Not surprisingly, Casino concerns itself with the mafia’s interests in Las Vegas in the 1970s. It follows Sam “Ace” Rothstein’s (De Niro) rise from being one of the top sports handicappers in the country to one of Las Vegas’s biggest movers and shakers as the manager of the Tangiers hotel and casino. Sam is put into his role by a Chicago crime family who is secretly behind the Tangiers’s operations, and his role is to initiate a complicated skimming operation that will funnel a portion of the casino’s profits directly to the mafia. Profits are soaring at the Tangiers and Sam is doing well until twin road blocks are placed into his life in the form of Ginger (Stone), a high class escort whom Sam falls in love with, and Nicky (Pesci), a mob enforcer whom he knows from back home. Though Sam might not be squeaky clean, compared to Ginger and Nicky, he’s a straight shooter, and their negative influence on his life begins to bring down unneeded attention on the operation. Sam finds himself in trouble with the gaming commission, and as Ginger falls deeper into substance abuse, and Nicky begins to careen further and further off the rails, the stability of the entire operation starts to crumble. The tenuous façade of normalcy that everyone in the film is operating under begins to disappear, and the law and regulating agencies eventually come to call and run the mafia influence out of town. Ultimately, the tragic tale of Sam, Nicky, Ginger and their associates is shown to be a microcosm of the Disneyfication of Las Vegas as a whole, as the film’s final scenes show the implosion of the old casinos like the Tangiers in favor of the thoroughly modern, corporately-owned, and family-friendly playgrounds that dominate the Strip today.
When compared to the sprawling mob epic that is Goodfellas, Casino feels tight and controlled, focusing in on its subject with laser precision. The film displays a similar authenticity and attention to period detail with its spiritual predecessor, but the presentation of these gilded worlds is very different. The first hour of Casino plays out very much like a documentary, giving the audience access to the inner workings of the Tangiers while extensive voice over from Sam and Nicky provides the context for the swirl of images. Typically, I am a very vocal critic of voice over in films, but it has become one of Scorsese’s directorial signatures and Casino is built around an extensive voice over structure. Often when it is overused, voice over is a crutch for the audience to follow narrative through receiving exposition dumps without having to make critical leaps or fully engage with a film, but there are always exceptions to that rule, and in Casino the voice over works to lend the film authenticity by linking it with documentary traditions. Particularly early in the film, the audience takes on the role of a visitor to Las Vegas, overwhelmed by the spectacle of the place, which Scorsese presents with his typical cinematic bravado, utilizing voice over to insure that the audience gains access to a place of privileged knowledge that tourists would obviously never have. The voice over puts Sam and Nicky in a place as the gatekeepers of the knowledge for the audience, although they are also under surveillance. Scorsese establishes a series of looking relationships between the casino employees in the film that is predicated on overarching surveillance, and even Sam is under the scrutiny of the eye in the sky. All of these details are important in creating the dense tapestry of Casino, and by so carefully establishing the proper day-to-day functions of the business as a delicate equilibrium, Scorsese allows the audience to appreciate just how fully the operation goes off the rails later in the film.
Casino begins with a car bombing and then uses a flashback structure to tell us how things have unraveled to the point that someone would betray and attempt to kill our protagonist, Sam. As established early in the film, Sam has created a perfectly functional ecosystem at the Tangiers and when outside elements are introduced to the mix, things begin to fall apart quickly. Sam’s personal life starts to unravel when he puts too much trust in Ginger, but the biggest element of chaos in Las Vegas is Nicky. Initially sent by the bosses to assist Sam and provide muscle for the operation, Nicky quickly sees an opportunity to go rogue in Las Vegas and he assembles a crew that operates with near impunity. Even in a filmography that is rife with cold blooded killers, Nicky Santoro stands out for his savage brutality. Pesci plays him as someone who takes great delight in killing and who does it with a gleeful efficiency. Aside from enriching himself and his crew, and gaining more power, there is little end to Nicky’s violent means, but Pesci doesn’t play him as a mindless killer. He’s ruthless, but Nicky is scariest in the moments when Pesci allows the audience to see the wheels beginning to turn in his mind. Though his bursts of violence are often sudden and explosive, they’re usually preceded by a brief moment of consideration and calculation which Pesci portrays subtly in his facial expressions. There’s a moment late in the film in which Nicky decides to fully betray Sam and begin an affair with Ginger that puts this quiet calculation on full display. The most dangerous thing about Nicky is that he is unpredictable, but not out of lack of consideration; he’s already weighed the outcomes and potential consequences of his actions, but he simply doesn’t care.
Pesci’s portrayal of the homicidal maniac Nicky is the most readily memorable aspect of Casino for me, but it isn’t the strongest performance in the film. As I mentioned when I was writing about his performance in A Bronx Tale, De Niro puts in a strong performance that serves as the bedrock of the film and allows Pesci’s manic energy to reach dizzying heights by comparison. He’s a great actor and his role in Casino might have been one of the last truly great roles and performances that he turned in before sliding into the more comfortable niche that he’s occupied in his late career, but he’s still overshadowed by Sharon Stone. I had forgotten just how much range Stone demonstrates in playing Ginger. Her character is sad, broken, an addict, and requires the actress to portray a full range of heightened emotion. Her performance charts the full descent into addiction, and she imbues Ginger with the type of manic energy so typical in cocaine addicts. Though she’s surrounded in the film by violent, manipulative men, Ginger is never a victim of anyone but herself, and even in the full throes of addiction by film’s end, she retains a sort of cunning agency. It’s a performance that is both maddening in its depiction of an individual’s capacity for harm to others, and heartbreaking in its revelation of an addict’s capacity for self-destruction. If Sam is the closest thing in the film to a hero, then Ginger is ostensibly a villain, and her actions throughout the film certainly cast her as such, but she is still pitiable. Although Scorsese wouldn’t allow a character like Ginger to fall into the trap of being a stereotype or trope, Stone’s performance is the linchpin to fully humanizing her and giving her character arc a strong sense of pathos. In a different year she very well could have won an Oscar for this performance rather than simply being nominated.
Casino regularly gets short changed when it comes to assessing its place in Scorsese’s body of work or in the subset of crime films about the mafia in which it exists, but it is overdue for a critical reevaluation. The film isn’t a masterpiece, but it should be ranked favorably among the second tier of Scorsese’s deep filmography. While it’s most frequently remembered for its excessive, gratuitous violence, the film offers an insightful character study of its protagonists and also a stylish, informative look behind the curtain of the casino industry in its heyday. It explores one of the overarching themes that Scorsese has returned to often in his films, the introduction of an element of chaos into a pristine, closed system. That chaos takes different forms in different films. Here it is Nicky and Ginger’s destructive capabilities, in The Aviator, Howard Hughes’s mental illness plays a similar role, and in The Departed, chaos is personified by the moles in both the mafia and the police department. Scorsese has often chosen to investigate organizational structures and the forces that bring them crashing down like a house of cards, and Casino is a great example of that narrative. It’s a film that deserves to be examined within the context of its director’s greatest works, but one that also represents some interesting stylistic diversions and that can, and does, stand up on its own as a work of art.