By Matthew Riordan
Directed by Ignas Jonynas
When Vincentas (Vytautas Kaniusonis) is named “˜Best Emergency Service Employee’ at the hospital where he works, he is given a diploma of merit, a mug decorated with the health ministry logo and ten energy bars. What he needs is hard cash.
Ignas Jonynas’s first solo run at feature-length direction shouldn’t be confused with its Hollywood namesake – though that would be a major compliment to the latter. Jonynas’s The Gambler is less easy to peg down; like many successful European films of recent years it blends genre elements from traditional noir and the psychological thriller to create a kind of ultra-realist (im)morality tale.
The film focuses on Vincentas – a gambling-addicted emergency medic with a pile of debt hanging over his head. Like every great anti-hero, Vincentas’s morality resides in the grey rather than the black or white. In the opening scenes we see him save the life of a young drug-addict who has been taken advantage of by an English-speaking photographer. After resuscitating her, he corners the photographer making no attempt to hide his disgust. It seems fair to assume at this point that Vincentas is a man with morals. Yet, what he goes on to do with the confiscated photos throws our assumptions into doubt and Jonynas keeps us deep in that doubt for the rest of the film.
Vincentas’s co-workers share his penchant for gambling. When a transplant patient dies in transit, the medical team pulls over to the side of the road and starts an impromptu gambling session using a portable horseracing track. All the while, the dead man lies in the back of their ambulance. To a man – and woman – they drink hard, gamble even harder and consistently subvert the stereotypical image of the medical profession. When Vincentas devises a game where the staff gambles on patients’ lives, his co-workers – with the exception of Ieva (Oona Mekas) – don’t hesitate in placing their bets and cutting themselves in to the profit. As their operation grows it only seems a matter of time before they turn on one and other.
If that was all there was to the story, the film would probably fail to make the impact it desires. It is the character of Ieva and her romantic entanglement with Vicentas that really elevates the plot beyond the routine. A single-mother and apparent sole beacon of morality in a sea of vice, Ieva raises and alters the stakes in Vincentas’s game and ultimately he has to choose to between his increasingly lucrative market and her (though those options aren’t as mutually exclusive as they might appear).
Set on the Lithuanian coastline, the film’s landscape compliments the uneasy subject matter and Jonynas uses the diversity of the environment to its full potential. The action moves from picturesque beaches to the rundown tower blocks and dockyards of a city still feeling the Soviet hangover. But for all its gritty realism the film is not without its symbolism and the Baltic Sea is a domineering presence throughout the film – almost becoming a character in itself.
Using an overcast colour palette, the technically astute cinematography balances subtlety and big budget sensibilities to create a dark mood full of tension. Alongside these visuals, a claustrophobic, unnerving soundtrack demonstrates just how much well-executed, electronic sound-design can add to a film’s tone. Along with the writing, these elements give the film the ideal pacing and Jonynas is able to unveil the plot’s twists and turns without ever overselling his hand.
The Gambler can be an uncomfortable watch at times. It is an unflinching look at people, their greed and their hesitant morality. The film could be read as a number of things: a critique of a consumerist society, a condemnation of the commercialization of the pharmaceutical and medical industries, or a study of the existential crisis that desensitized medical workers go through. Maybe it’s all of these things but its biggest strength is that, through the consistently strong performances of the cast and the skill of the crew, it takes a scenario that should be too atrocious to imagine and makes it entirely believable.
Watch The Gambler on FilmDoo.com.