'The Gambler' ('Losejas'): Film Review

The Gambler Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Locomotive Productions

The Gambler Still - H 2014

Bad medicine

Lithuania's Oscar contender is a macabre, politically charged drama about crooked medics who take bets on their patients dying

A bracing blast of Baltic Noir with a spiky political subtext, Lithuania's Oscar submission for the Best Foreign Language Film contest is a contemporary psychological thriller so remorselessly bleak it almost feels Danish. Already a prize-winner on the European festival circuit, it was co-produced by the Riga-based Locomotive Productions, who are also behind Latvia's Academy Awards contender Rocks In My Pocket.

Not to be confused with Mark Wahlberg's upcoming remake, The Gambler takes place in an unnamed coastal town in Lithuania where corruption and vice are deeply ingrained into the social fabric. First-time feature director Ignas Jonynas, whose background is in theater and music, conceived the story as a portrait of a post-Soviet "hybrid person" torn between his state socialist roots and the brutal new realities of dog-eat-dog capitalism. As a political allegory, it's pretty crude and simplistic. But it works just as well as a universal comment on the human condition, and deserves to be seen beyond the Baltic region.

Rangy, weather-worn, ruggedly handsome Vytautas Kaniusonis stars as Vincentas, a veteran paramedic who wins prizes at work for saving lives as part of the town's emergency ambulance service. But his private life is in turmoil, with heavy gambling debts and threats of violence from local mobsters hanging over him. His solution is to set up a secret sweepstake among his co-workers to bet on which patients are most likely to die. The scheme quickly escalates, expanding into a popular website and pulling in big bucks from outside the hospital. It is amoral and illegal, but nobody cares as long as the money rolls in.

Nobody except fellow medic Ieva (Oona Mekas), that is, a single mother with a seriously ill son who happens to start dating Vincentas just as the betting scheme takes off. While she initially turns a blind eye, he denies and dissembles. But the relationship implodes as Ieva struggles with the multiple pressures of steep medical bills for her ailing child, eviction from her apartment and back-stabbing colleagues who punish her for opposing their gambling operation. Her desperate attempts to bargain with bosses and fellow doctors only expose deeper layers of financial and sexual corruption.

The Gambler paints a grim picture of contemporary Lithuania, a lawless purgatory of murky sexual assignations in squalid dockside hotels, brutal public beatings in broad daylight, and callous ambulance crews playing cards alongside the highway after a patient dies in transit. Yet there is black comedy and raucous hedonism here too. Vincentas and his co-workers seem unusually fond of riotous drunken parties, boozy karaoke sessions and smashing up their cars like demolition derby drivers. Life in this degraded society may be corrupt and selfish, but it still looks like a fun joyride at times.

A little overlong, The Gambler becomes disjointed and fuzzy in its middle act. The deadly final reckoning also seems to be driven more by dramatic necessity than narrative credibility, with key characters suddenly making self-destructive decisions out of misguided pride or sudden attacks of conscience. The resolution is melodramatic and moralistic, but does not weaken the overall movie. If this were a classic film noir, of course, nobody would repent and everybody would suffer.

In technical terms, The Gambler has a fast-moving, kinetic flow that holds the attention. Credit is due to the fluid work of first-time editor Stasys Zak and cinematographer Janis Eglitis, who balances hand-held naturalism with some visually flashy digressions, including a whirling 360-degree shot around Vincentas and a stunning aerial overview of Ieva adrift in lapping ocean waves. A purposely off-key, unnerving electro-rock score by Jonyas's sometime band The Bus heightens the overall sense of throbbing unease and creeping moral decay.

Production companies: Studio Uljana Kim, Locomotive Productions
Cast: Romulad Lavrynovic, Valerijus Jevsejevas, Lukas Kersys, Jonas Vaitkus
Director: Ignas Jonyas
Screenwriters: Kristupas Sabolius, Ignas Jonyas
Producer: Uljana Kim
Cinematographer: Janis Eglitis
Editor: Stasys Zak
Casting: Dovile Gasiunaite
Music: The Bus
Sales company: Wide Management, Paris
No rating, 109 minutes