There are all kinds of gambling, casino games only being a very small representation. Jack (Clive Owen,) Croupier’s central character spends much of the movie insisting that he does not gamble. He’s insistent that his primary calling is as a writer. This sets up the on going narration, Jack telling us the story he’s writing as we watch it. The idea of writing something fascinates Jack. We see his early efforts at writing “The Ball” which is possibly his attempt to write the story his publisher Giles asked for; a sports story, with lots of violence and sex. That story, however, never gets past the title. Jack doesn’t know anything about the sports story.
He does know gambling though, and knows it very well. Initially, when his father tells him about the job at the casino, Jack “isn’t interested” as if his decision to be a writer means he can’t commit to anything else. But Jack’s father knows him well. It takes very little effort to get him to take the job. Jack was born in a casino, if the story he tells is true, and was raised by his gambler father. His gambling was bad enough to cause Jack’s mother to leave them. The gambling environment is in Jack’s blood and compels him, but the writing remains important. It’s only a matter of time before he integrates the two, justifying his engagement with the casino as material for his novel. While a newly employed croupier, riding public transportation, he promises his novel will tell everyone “you have to make the choice in life, be a gambler or a croupier and then live with your decision, come what may.”
We know that Jack has a past and he isn’t overly free about sharing details of it. When he announces his croupier job to his girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee) she’s shocked that he doesn’t need training, assuming that he had just “known some gamblers.” He does know gamblers, although Jack insists that he isn’t one, even refusing a friendly card game at a party. He mocks Marion playing the lottery. According to the code Jack professes, he has no room for gambling at all. However, what Jack says and what he does don’t always match. His boss, Reynolds, explains the rules for casino employees; don’t fraternize with fellow employees, don’t recognize “punters” (customers) outside the casino, and don’t ever gamble. He assures Jack that if he breaks a rule “they’ll know.” Jack seems very serious about not breaking them, but in very short order, breaks every one. In the case of “not recognizing punters” he ignores it because the “punter,” a woman named Jani, (Alex Kingston) reasons that the odds of them being seen together are minimal, and he agrees. In the case of fraternizing, he takes the initiative with his co worker Bella (Kate Hardie) when she brings him to her place to clean him up after a scuffle with an angry cheater he’d exposed. “I hate cheats.” He tells Bella, although he is cheating on his girlfriend with her.
Jack says he’s not a gambler and that he hates cheaters. His father is both of these things, and everything that goes with them, including a liar. He tells Jack that he started a business, but we see that he’s really a bartender. The conversations between them are short, but not hostile. Jack views his father as he does other gamblers, nothing for him to get upset over. Jack tells us that he “likes to watch them lose.” which is probably helpful for being a croupier, but not an outlook that would make him cheerful. Late in the film he defines his theory about gamblers, “He questioned the conventional wisdom that gamblers were self destructive. He had come to believe that in reality, they want to destroy everyone else; their families, loved ones, everyone, fuck over the whole world.” Jack knows this from experience with his father and he’s seen it reinforced by countless casino customers.
As a writer, Jack imagines himself detached, “a voyeur.” Like any gambler, he is skilled at justifying everything he does to himself, whether it’s true or not. He’s not honestly interested in anything outside of himself, as Marion points out about his protagonist while reading his novel. Jack’s protagonist is named “Jake,” and it doesn’t take long for Jack to start thinking of himself as Jake some of the time, although still regarding the character as exaggerated fiction. Jake becomes an excuse and a rationalization, so that Jack doesn’t have to see himself as a gambler.
Jack is very talented. As someone told him he has “the hands of a conjurer, or a card sharp.” He pulls a good trick at a party, giving each person in order, a better hand than the preceding one. He also reveals that he could let someone win at black jack and the casino cameras would never know. He is able to read people effectively, down to how many cards they’ll ask for in poker, and quickly realizes while he himself is being tested, that his boss can’t count cards. None of this talent is of any use against himself though. He knows exactly what self justifications work and uses them. When Marion asks him “What am I to you?” He tells her “You’re my conscience.” He doesn’t respond when she asks him about having one of his own. Jack runs entirely on what he wants to do at the time and then justification afterwards.
The turn in the story, Jack agreeing to help Jani cheat the casino, and get her out of trouble with her creditors, illustrates it perfectly. Jack initially refuses, but relents. After being paid, he tells himself it isn’t gambling, but “being paid for a service.” Nonetheless, he’s soon trying to figure the odds of keeping the money. It doesn’t hurt that Jani seems to know how to push all of his buttons. She tells him that gambling destroyed her family, specifically her mother, a tale which Jack can’t help but relate to. She has Jack “discover” bruises, and admits that they weren’t accidental. She makes a point of commending his honesty. She’s researched the casino, and presumably Jack as well. As we discover at the end of the film, none of it is an accident. Jack could have asked more questions, but doesn’t because he wants to go along with it. He claims his actions aren’t gambling, but at this point he doesn’t bother to claim they’re not cheating.
From the beginning, we see that Jack feels there’s a choice between being a writer and being a croupier. He succeeds at being a writer, having his novel published to big sales, although anonymously. Yet he tells himself, “Jack knew the truth about himself, that he was a one book writer, a one time winner who had quit while he was ahead.” After that we see him back at the casino having reached the place where he “can’t hear the ball.” He feels he is fully the croupier now, despite the fact that nearly everything that occurred was not in his control. He was played by his father and Janis, and doesn’t know the full scale of that operation, missing details about how they made out well when the job went bad. Marion “his conscience” is killed and he isn’t even sure why. There is certainly a lot about the workings of the casino that he doesn’t know. He imagines himself as above winning and losing, yet his hand doesn’t seem that great. He can “make you lose” he claims, but he loses too. On some level he knows this, as hinted by the Hemingway quote he repeats, “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, many are strong at the broken places, but those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.” Jack knows that there’s no hurry for his destruction, although he’s been broken for a very long time. Whether he’s strong or not is tough to say, but his justifications certainly help him cope.
All in all, Croupier is a terrific film, full of solid performances. Clive Owen has the depth necessary for the role, believable as a writer and a gambler. The supporting cast is in fine form, particularly Gina Mckee’s Marion and Alex Kingston’s Jani, Jack’s conscience and the woman who gets him to ignore it. Directed by Mike Hodges, best known for “Get Carter,” it shows the “Get Carter” lineage, although Jack’s line of work may be kinder than Carter’s, or perhaps it’s just misery over a longer term. Jack’s no killer, but he makes his living off human misery, including his own. The casino environment is played well as is the character work. All of these characters have pasts we get glimpses of, but never get the whole story, in keeping with Jack character. He hears part of a story, but loses interest and doesn’t ask further. We have to wonder too, since Jack’s telling the story, and Jake’s involved, how much is what happened, and how much of it is what Jack says happened.