An intense character study of a compulsive gambler, “Owning Mahowny” recounts the true story of an unassuming Toronto bank employee who siphoned $10.2 million in funds before being arrested in 1982. Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Hurt give compelling performances as, respectively, the betting addict and the vulture who preys on his weakness. But the coldly unrewarding drama is as distant and joyless as its protagonist, representing a disappointment for director Richard Kwietniowski after his warmly observed debut, “Love and Death on Long Island.” Sony Pictures Classics faces a challenge building an audience for this exacting, emotionally austere pic.
Adapted from the bestselling account “Stung” by journalist Gary Ross, the film trains a cool, unblinking eye on chronic gambler Dan Mahowny (Hoffman).
While millions pass through his hands in the nightly ebb and flow of win and lose, Dan drives a beat-up car and doesn’t own a decent suit. His indifference to material goods extends to the casino, where his high-roller status affords him VIP treatment. But he seems oblivious to the luxury suites, limos and expensive hookers placed at his disposal.
Considered a sharp financial operator, Dan is promoted to assistant manager at the bank, giving him power to approve loans and transfer funds in a period when the economy is booming and security measures are sufficiently elastic to get around.
Dan’s girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver), a clerk at the same bank branch, is unaware of his professional transgressions. But she learns the full extent of his gambling habit when, during what is meant to be a romantic weekend trip, she finds him glued to the casino’s craps table and is unable to pull him away.
Considerable screen time is devoted to the relationship and to Belinda’s struggle to accept Dan’s addiction and remain committed to him. This element of the drama is its most unsatisfying, because of Driver’s blank performance — exacerbated by a frightful wig and chunky glasses — and Dan’s inability to throw her any kind of concession, which make the woman’s ongoing loyalty to him seem frustrating and implausible.
Far more dramatically effective is the relationship between Dan and reptilian Atlantic City casino manager Victor Fox (Hurt). Hungry for his own advancement within the gambling world, Victor nurtures Mahowny in every way possible, from keeping his ribs and Coke on standby in the kitchen to assisting in his undetected transfer of cash into the U.S.
Looking sweaty and fatigued, Hoffman plays Dan as a quiet, purposeful man, in many ways dead and unfeeling, his emotionless concentration allowing not even the thrill of winning to register across his face during the long, sleepless nights at the gaming tables. While it’s a controlled turn that fully conveys the mechanical nature of obsession, it also limits access to the character, making Mahowny’s efforts to continue defrauding the bank and satisfying his compulsion fascinating on one level but alienating on others.
Hurt — whose work with Kwietniowski in “Long Island” was among his best in years — registers as a chilling but ultimately more human presence, showing the character’s steely, self-serving nature and eagerness to exploit another man’s sickness, but also revealing an occasional flicker of admiration or even regret when Dan’s luck runs out. The subtle play of emotions over Hurt’s face from anxiety to relief as Mahowny starts losing after a sustained winning streak is superbly gauged.
Filming in sterile, artificially lit environments, Kwietniowski and lenser Oliver Curtis meticulously construct an impersonal atmosphere, underlining the effect with voyeuristic surveillance cameras in the bank, casino and in police monitoring setups. But this harsh rigidity somehow detracts from the sense of the early ’80s as a time of financial feverishness that should be a key element to the drama. A brooding techno-jazz score represents a further seal on the film’s cool aesthetic.