Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Martin Scorsese and Nicolas Pileggi
Casino will always be my favorite gangster movie. Oh sure, it’s possible that somebody, maybe even Martin Scorsese, will make a film that blows everyone’s minds in the next several years, but as time ticks away, that seems increasingly unlikely. I first caught a glimpse of the film on television, I think more than halfway through the proceedings. I was a little lost as to the arc of the story, but enthralled by its scorched pastels presentation of the mafia-owned Las Vegas. It’s a time and place in history that’s well and truly lost, and one that remains alien to me, as I’ve managed to avoid the neon-festooned Land of Broken Dreams for my entire life; the closest I’ve ever come was driving past on the way to Colorado when I lived in Los Angeles.
The prevailing wisdom is that Casino is a serviceable retreading of subject matter thoroughly covered by the more popular Goodfellas (1990), but this comparison begins to fall apart under scrutiny. Yes, both films are largely concerned with Italian American criminals. Yes, both films are steeped in period clothes and music. Yes, both are almost operatic stagings of the rise and fall of men who fought the law (and the law won). However, once you dig a little deeper the differences become clear. Goodfellas is about the making of a gangster, the origin and retirement story of Henry Hill, a man who wanted it all and who was willing to risk everything to feel like somebody. Casino is about the self-destruction of the mob in a town they controlled with an iron fist, while its protagonist, Sam “Ace” Rothstein (a legendary performance from DeNiro) tries to hold on for dear life. Henry Hill is a hothead, a young kid from the block who bites off way more than he can chew once he’s convinced that the sky is the limit. Ace is a seasoned veteran, a smart guy who got to be the best by making the smart plays, and he’s one of Scorsese’s most tragic and relatable characters. Ace’s downfall is almost entirely beyond his control (save for his involvement with Ginger, played pitch-perfect hateable by Sharon Stone): he moves out to the desert reluctantly, wary that his business and way of life will be meddled with by the powers that be, and, as the movie unfolds, he’s proven right time and again.
Both Casino and Goodfellas are ultimately about greed and corrupting power, but the former makes its point far more subtly than the latter. Ace is a man driven by discipline, respect, and dignity, and DeNiro plays the character with a perfect combination of stone-faced distance masking a finely calibrated sense of right, wrong, and a desire to be loved. Casino is all about the destructive power of desire, but Ace may be the only character in the universe of the film that desires something pure, rather than power, money, or status. In the end, Ace’s greatest sin is pride, in that he refuses to walk away from his brutally manipulative and despicable wife Ginger, and of course, she eventually leaves him.
Gangster films are often based around the premise that people will root for bad characters if they’re sufficiently charmed, but Casino deviates from the script by following the arc all the way to the end. We’re initially equal parts delighted and frightened by Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci, doing what Joe Pesci does best), but by the end of the film, we nod with grim-faced stoicism as Nicky receives his well-deserved comeuppance. Still, Casino leaves us with some troubling notions; while Ace escapes with his life and livelihood relatively intact, the powers that be, who in many ways are responsible for the *ahem* house of cards’ collapse, dole out punishment and clemency as though they were a moral or ethical authority. Similarly, the Las Vegas authorities are plenty happy to turn the other way while the Wiseguys do business, up until they aren’t getting greased in just the right way, and then the moral outrage switch flips. In many ways, Casino seems to be hinting at the possibility of no real moral distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, as the fates of all players seem to fall at random, with Ace escaping purely by luck of the draw.
In the end, there’s just as much to love here as there is in Scorsese’s more celebrated gangster picture, but Casino has the added value of immersing the audience in a time and place that’s well and truly gone, and asking a question that was daring for the time, but may come off as obvious now: is there a right and wrong? Or are there only winners and losers?