A feature debut (we’re not counting the portmanteau “Yolki,” co-directed with Timur Bekmambetov, among others) so self-assured as to really only ever be marred by show-offiness, Latvian/Lithuanian co-production “The Gambler,” which plays in competition at the Marrakech Film Festival, marks director Ignas Jonynas out as one to keep an eye on. Taking a skewed, and ever so slightly surreal, story about a team of emergency medics who develop a highly successful and lucrative game involving betting on when patients are going to die, and basing the odds on complex and arcane analyses of the medical information to which they have access, the film, to its credit, is less interested in this high concept than it is in its lead character, the bearlike Vincentas (Vytautus Kaniusonis), his moral descent and eventual redemption. It would be a difficult trick for even a more experienced filmmaker to strike the right balance here, but Jonynas delivers a provocative and compelling movie that is confident to a fault with both the genre and character aspects of the script, all in his first time at bat.
Vincentas is a dedicated paramedic, the best and most effective of his close-knit team, who all have the same vice: a weakness for gambling that in Vincentas’ case has found him in debt to a local heavy. In between callouts, they maintain an ongoing dice game, while Vincentas strikes up a flirtation with a straitlaced co-worker Ieva (Oona Mekas) who herself has serious money problems and a son needing expensive chemotherapy treatment. Suffering a beating from his creditor, Vincentas dreams up a new game: with himself as bookmaker, he and his group bet on which of the patients in the hospital will die first, with the odds adjusted according to actuarial details such as their age and illness/injuries. At this point, we may think we now know where the film is heading—surely it’s just a matter of time before one or other of them is driven to betray their Hippocratic duties in an effort to manipulate the outcome and win the jackpot? (Indeed a deliberate death does result, but not in any way we had envisaged). Instead Jonynas and co-writer Kristupas Sabolius are more interested in following the progress of Vincentas’ and Ieva’s fledgling relationship and the strain it comes under as Vincentas lies about the game, knowing she would rightly not approve, even while Ieva finds herself hitting moral rock bottom in terms of what she will do to secure her son’s treatment.
The film delivers what feels like an authentic portrayal of the lives of these Lithuanian emergency services personnel (even if we could quibble that after a certain point they don’t seem to be getting many callouts any more) and the quiet desperation of their personal circumstances rings true in several boisterous but somehow pathetic drinking scenes. And as the money involved increases, so are their morals further eroded; they start to bet on fallen comrades, and conspire to get Ieva fired once she discovers the game’s existence. It all has the feel of a slow fall down the rabbit hole in which the game itself seems to corrupt those it touches, until the previously harmonious, if impecunious, group starts to crack up under the strain of sudden suspicion and greed. That heart-of-darkness feel is largely achieved by some very stylish and clever filmmaking that utilizes slow motion, dynamic camerawork and sometimes almost unbearably atonal, loud scoring to build a sense of creeping unease.
Which isn’t to say that some of those flourishes don’t become overwrought and grating after a while. After Ieva discovers Vincentas’ lie, she confronts him, returns the ill-gotten cash he had given her for her son’s medication and then walks away, but the circling camera continues to whirl around crazily as the score builds for a good while thereafter, making needlessly melodramatic a moment of what should be quiet, internal crisis for Vincentas. And Jonynas’ use of extreme slow motion to heighten the odd disconnect with reality that the film achieves is effective, but perhaps overzealously applied. Still, we can no doubt chalk that down to the exuberance of the first-time director, where elsewhere he is reined in by the restraint of the performances especially, and the unadorned, enigmatic scripting that feels admirably lived-in and never stoops to insult our smarts by overexplaining through exposition. We should note here too that it’s almost a pleasure to be able to point out a flaw that arises from an overabundance of confidence, rather than a dearth of it—perhaps because of his success as theater director, Jonynas seems to suffer none of the uncertainty or hesitance that other neophytes might. But perhaps more detrimental to the film’s overall effectiveness is that the pared-back performances, coupled with the grim, morally mucky demi monde Jonynas creates, all presented in occasionally distracting style does create a disconnect with the characters, who are people we observe with almost sociological curiosity rather than any real sympathy.
Though it lacks warmth, we’ve a proclivity for dark, weird stories set in unfamiliar yet specific situations, and this is by and large what we get here. We may never be exactly sure how the game works, its mechanics or quite what the rules are, but again, that doesn’t seem of central importance to a film that’s as much about losing your moral compass as it is about luck, though tonally it did remind us of a less overtly surreal take on “Intacto” or even “13 Tzameti” in its evocation of a dangerous underground game of death. But here the real casualties of the game are decency, loyalty and goodness, which makes setting it in the milieu of an often heroic, caring profession an inspired touch. If nothing else, “The Gambler,” which picked up a Special Jury Prize in Warsaw, is an example of doing a lot on a relatively small budget, and, for director Jonynas, a calling card for his abilities in a whole new medium whose kinetic possibilities he embraces without reserve. [B]