My first experience with Martin Scorsese was 2010’s Shutter Island. That movie felt not like a throwback to the noir era, but a relic of it. Not in a good way. A lot of movies were made during the Hays Code era, and a lot of them were horrible. This is true of any era of filmmaking, but you’d think that a director as high profile as Scorsese wouldn’t have imitated the bad films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Scorsese, from what I’ve seen and heard, has always been a classicist director. His films come from another era–when they fail, they fail like movies did seventy years ago. And when they succeed, no matter when they’re set, they succeed like classic movies. Hard, merciless looks at the empires of men in America.
Hard, merciless and long looks at the empires of men. This movie is three hours long, and though that doesn’t seem like too much of a butt-numb-a-thon in comparison to a few other movies I know, its talky and casual pace makes itself felt. It’s not bad, per se–it’s just not fast. Everything in this movie is paced comfortably and slowly, which makes its frequent excursions into horrific violence… well, kind of hysterically funny to start with. This is probably the first movie in which I’ve liked Joe Pesci, but it’s also the first movie where I’ve seen a Joe Pesci performance from beginning to end. And let me tell you, when that little guy decides to stab a man in the throat with a pen over a minor slight? It’s funny.
Casino is an epic for the modern American age. The age of Googie architecture blending with pastel suits, monochrome ties and dapper shoes–all of which had traces of cocaine and blood on them. Sam Rothstein, portrayed by the definitely-NOT-Jewish Robert de Niro, is the director of the Tangiers casino in Las Vegas in all but name. Sam is a fascinating man, in the way that Charles Foster Kane or the Zuckerberg character from The Social Network are fascinating. It’s slightly more explicit here that you’re not meant to root for him, but Scorsese never lets that keep you from sympathizing. Sam Rothstein is primarily a human being, not a career criminal. Scorsese keeps that in focus through this movie’s runtime.
This is in stark contrast to Joe Pesci’s portrait of Nicky Santoro, a man slowly (very slowly) revealed to be an absolute monster. Cold, detached, filled with a venomous hatred of anything that stands in his way of making the most profit he can. Nicky Santoro is a man with real darkness in his heart, which goes from funny to scary to downright terrifying after three hours have gone. Nicky is a man prepared to kill anyone to protect the man he’s being paid by and prepared to screw anyone over if they’re out for his money. Joe Pesci gives Nicky a real humour that works to ingratiate himself in the first two hours of the movie. It’s after all of this that it’s revealed that behind the scenes, he’s the spanner in the works.
The conflict between these two men is fascinating to watch as it evolves over the ten year span of this movie. Their screen time together is soon eclipsed by their screen time apart as Sam works the business overground and Nicky works his criminal connections dry. They both burn through their ties in each plane trying to live the American dream. It’s downright captivating to see how divergent and yet unified these two worlds are. Everyone’s backs are scratched by everyone else but no one says a damn word. And when a woman comes into the mix–Rothstein’s wife, Ginger (Sharon Stone)–the two worlds start colliding more than coexisting and the empire falls in the most spectacular way.
This movie took about five or six tries to finally sit through. This is mostly due to its almost three hour run time. By the time this movie is just getting cooking, you could’ve watched Primer one and a half times. I tried and I tried to watch this movie, often getting only to the second hour before throwing in the towel on Scorsese’s epic of modern greed. This was likely my mistake. Casino is a damned good movie, I’m glad to say. After having wasted my time on the totally awful Shutter Island, I’m glad that I sat through this movie. Don’t get me wrong, it was most certainly sitting through a movie instead of enjoying every second, but it’s still a damn worthy cinematic experience.
In what’s most definitely a contradiction in some terms, Casino is exquisitely edited and poorly paced. Its conversational pace is perhaps its largest flaw. While it certainly helps in drawing an audience into a picture, it also wears that same audience out after an hour or two. And you want me to sit through 135 minutes of conversation just for the action to start? I’m glad that time is taken out in the introduction to show the audience around a casino and how it works, but after about 60 minutes, I’m wondering more what’s happening to these people in this time and not how well the casino itself is being run. However, let me repeat: Thelma Schoonmaker’s hand is one of the most expert I’ve seen in film. Conversations flow, characters develop, and a loose, talky script still maintains its flow through the third hour, if only barely.
What’s the message of this movie? Does crime pay? It depends on how good you are at crime. It depends on how good you are at keeping your connections in your rolodex and out of your pants. This movie has no grand social message at the end of it, instead being a simple portrayal of greed and its effects on those it consumes. At the end of the day, I really only have one question that needs to be answered: Is Casino better than Shutter Island? Do I even need to answer that question? THREE STARS