Since the beginning of the film industry, casinos and gamblers have featured in Hollywood films. Gambling, gamblers, and the spaces in which gambling occurs are highly charged and filled with meaning and metaphor.
Whether it is the existential uncertainty of the future, the innate longing for more, the destructive powers of the human heart, or the excitement of the unknown, the presence of gambling in films always carries a secondary meaning.
The nuances of meaning behind gambling in films vary in every movie. However, a few main tropes are used to highlight specific thematic undertones – below are some used most often.
The suave high roller
Many of the most famous and popular gambling films will revolve around the figure of the sophisticated high roller. Films like Casino Royale, Goldfinger, Barry Lyndon, Molly’s Game, and the Ocean’s franchise used the figure of the handsome, elite man (or sometimes woman) who knows the way around a roulette table.
The presence of gambling in these films is often used to suggest the vagaries of fortune and luck and, at times, also to highlight the inequalities which exist in society. Most of us who watch these films will gasp as the debonair gamblers casually toss down sums that could pay off our mortgages.
The out-of-control maniac
Arguably the second most common trope in casino genre films is that of the out-of-control maniac or problem gambler. Movies like The Gambler (the original, of course), The Hustler, The Color of Money, and Uncut Gems depict men who have been driven to the end of their rope by their compulsion to gamble.
While the films depict gambling addiction, it can be argued that what they are depicting is a human craving for self-destruction over all other things. Alternatively considered, the characters are all men who have the potential to lead fulfilling lives but instead continue to desire more and more, and in turn, are destroyed by this inability to be at peace with themselves.
The Vegas strip
There are also several films that celebrate the Rabelaisian splendor of the city of Las Vegas. Movies like Viva Las Vegas, Vegas Vacation, The Hangover, and What Happens in Vegas celebrate and explore the wildness of Las Vegas and its overwhelming excesses.
Perhaps the films also, in some way, question what it means for a society to have a liminal space in which actions and activities which are crimes outside of state limits are celebrated openly. The location perhaps asks what it means for an individual to cross over into that space and how the change in their actions can be perceived.
The online gambler
Although online gambling is still relatively new to the industry, there have been a number of films that feature online gambling, including Runner Runner, which stars both Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake and features an online poker game gone wrong. Online gambling platforms and mobile casino apps are becoming increasingly popular as mobile technology improves, and more states begin to loosen restrictions on gambling regulations.
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The group heist
The group heist concept has been perfected by the Ocean’s franchise and continued in films like Now You See Me, which combines the world of magic with that of gambling and theft. Group heist movies are fun, exhilarating romps through glittering casinos and glamourous worlds that feature Robin Hood type storylines, endearing themselves to their audience.
Films like Rain Man, the Hustler, and 21 all depict individuals who can be considered “masterminds.” In these films, intelligent, hyper-skilled individuals turn their abilities towards gambling and giving everything they have to win.
The fish out of water
Another type is the inexperienced gambler who is suddenly thrust into the world of high stakes gambling. Films like The Hangover, Hard Eight, The House, and even Indecent Proposal all feature inexperienced gamblers suddenly trying to stay afloat in a chaotic world.
In these films, gambling typically serves to place the characters in what feels like an alternate reality and tests whether they will be able to sink or swim.