Paradise lost

With Casino, Scorsese brilliantly leads us down the primrose path to heaven--and hell--on earth

In Milton's Paradise Lost, as God casts him out of paradise, Lucifer declares, "Better to reign in hell than serve in heav'n," a sentiment not unlike ones expressed by the vicious lowlifes that infest Martin Scorsese's brilliant new film, Casino.

The idea of going legitimate--at least the way normal people understand the term--is as foreign to the seedy players in Scorsese's Vegas as the Russian alphabet. Nothing worth having is worth paying retail for, no crime so heinous that it's not worth the stint in the slammer. And if paradise truly was lost, well, that's just because the Italians weren't running things.

Paradise in this case is The Strip--Las Vegas, Nevada, world capital of gambling and graft, prostitution and crime, and every other vice imaginable. (Fifty years after Bugsy Siegel first broke ground, money has indeed proven to be the only thing aside from cactus that actually grows in the desert.) Along with Wall Street and Washington, Vegas is a unique bastion, possibly the only place on earth where greed and corruption are not only permissible--they are practically prerequisites for citizenship. The casinos bilk the gamblers, the mob bosses steal from the casinos, the hustlers skim from the bosses--it's an ecosystem of dishonesty in which the rules of engagement are as immutable as they are unfathomably heartless: Deny everything. Never rat out your friends. Keep your mouth shut. Lay off another man's girl. And above all, don't steal from the big guys, but if you do, don't get caught.

Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro) knows all the rules. He has grown up and grown wise and grown rich living by them. In Las Vegas, these rules include under-the-table deals with the Teamsters pension fund, routinely bribing state and local politicians, and greasing the palms of everyone from valet attendants to bank presidents to ensure that you always have someone on your side when things get tight.

No one is tighter with Ace than Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), a hot-headed firecracker who acts out on each whim that passes through his superego-deficient frontal lobes. Someone calls you a faggot? Hit him with a telephone receiver. Tells you to shove it up your ass? Stab him in the throat. And God forbid you're a bookie and Nicky places a bet with you, because He Never Loses. Nicky has his own rules, and because he's a "made man"--a favorite son of the Mafia--his rules are as good as law.

Casino is Scorsese's breathless, dizzying version of the true story of Ace, Nicky, and Ace's blowsy wife Ginger (Sharon Stone), who, if you believe this movie, ran Las Vegas--and ran it into the ground--in the 1970s. A world-champion bookie, Ace is charged with managing the Tangiers casino, and it turns from a run-of-the-mill gambling parlor to the top betting joint in town. With a rap sheet five inches thick, Ace shouldn't be permitted to run a Dairy Queen, but in the magical bureaucracy that is "politics to the highest bidder," a numbskull front man (Kevin Pollack) gives the place an air of legitimacy while the crooks take care of business. Ace falls in love with Ginger, a prostitute-turned-kept woman who feeds off C-notes the way buzzards feed off rotting carcasses. Their relationship--and the illegal, behind-the-closed-door intrigue that permeates their lives--is the grist for this, Scorsese's most sweeping, brutally ambitious gangster film to date.

Who but Scorsese could keep making films with the likes of De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis and Robin Williams and still hog the lion's share of praise? At just under three hours, Casino is simply too vast to be anything other than a director's movie: from the narration that opens the film (and never abates) to the constant rock oldies soundtrack to the vertiginous, mystifyingly fluent camerawork, no single acting persona could occupy the screen the way Scorsese's personality does. His flashy, inimitable command of the outer reaches of film's potential--its capacity to entertain, inspire, and frighten--is conclusive evidence that he is the greatest film stylist of the last two decades. Here's a man with no compunction about inserting slow motion in the middle of scenes, freeze-framing characters in mid-sentence, or giving us a nostril's point-of-view of cocaine snorting. (Cinematographer Robert Richardson's omnipresent shafts of stark white light give the film an especially ghostly, woozy optical resonance.) There's nothing Scorsese won't do if it works (or if he can make it work), making Casino one of the most visually arresting pictures of the year.

But it also has his other trademarks: passion, energy, black comedy. Like GoodFellas before, I expect most people will walk out remembering how violent this film is, and there's no denying it has scenes of pure brutality. Scorsese doesn't traffic in the fake, splashy violence of most Hollywood films, but goes for the claustrophobic uneasiness of genuine savagery: when Nicky is asked to squeeze the name of an accomplice out of a hit man, he first turns him into a pulpy mess before crushing his head in a vise grip. And while you might not think Scorsese and co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi could ever make scenes like this even remotely funny, the script somehow manages to insert gallows humor at the most unsettling moments. Unlike the sombre Godfather films, Casino is rompish and, with the gear shift hardly showing, eerie.

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