In 1995, an American feature film stunned critics by presenting the world of the Las Vegas casino — a venerable institution for which the phrase “seedy underbelly” could have been invented — as an allegory for the pursuit of success in capitalist culture, a hotbed of violence — literal, verbal, and emotional — in which cruelty and venality are rewarded, and weakness is exploited. It presented the casino as a kind of purgatorial arena, capable of bestowing unfathomable rewards on those who chose to fight there, but more likely dragging their souls to hell; its visual style, peacockish and flashy almost to the point of nausea, mirrored that of the Las Vegas strip, its low-brow glamour and its clashing colors winking at the inherent tastelessness and seediness of the film’s story. Bills, whether fished out of a G-string or deposited in suitcases, were depicted as dirty, damp with druggy sweat and marked by evil deeds. Gambling, naturally, was both literal and metaphorical, with liberal talk of winning, losing, risk, and chance. “Of all the recent American films that were set in Las Vegas,” Jacques Rivette enthused in 2001 to Senses of Cinema, “[this] was the only one that was real.”
I am talking, of course, about Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls — any similarities to Martin Scorsese’s Casino, released the same year and also shot at the now-demolished Riviera in Las Vegas, are entirely coincidental. Viewed as a double-feature, though, they paint an extremely vivid picture of America’s relationship with commerce, and of the admirable lengths a leggy blonde will go to secure her future. In Verhoeven’s film, everything is hooking, and money does not just talk, but fuck; sex workers and casinos both use tricks to make their cash. Think of what you know about how a casino encourages (or in some cases is rumored to encourage) its clientele to keep spending — the mythic high-oxygen levels, the absence of clocks, the blinding lights, and the intoxicants — and then think of the effect Showgirls strives to have on its audience. When Rivette suggested that the casino had become a popular setting for American cinema by the turn of the millennium, he was right, and part of its success, in addition to its visual distinctiveness, is its putative status as a place where everyone has the chance to make their fortune, and the contrast between this suggested state and the reality that the house always wins. What could be more American — equal opportunity that is illusory, hamstrung by a powerful ruling class? On the Riviera’s exterior, we see neon stars ascending then exploding, on a loop, and it feels entirely apropos that this thunderous metaphor for stardom and collapse plays out endlessly on the film’s periphery. Likewise, Verhoeven knew exactly what he was doing when he had Nomi, his ambitious heroine, gyrate to David Bowie and Trent Reznor’s ’I’m Afraid of Americans’: “No one needs anyone, they don’t even just pretend,” Bowie croons neurotically. “I’m afraid of Americans, I’m afraid of the world, I’m afraid I can’t help it.”
’I’m Afraid of Americans’ would have made a perfect title for another film that uses the casino as a heavily metaphorical backdrop, Paul Schrader’s 2021 The Card Counter. In contrast to most casino-set films’ bright and lurid interiors, Schrader’s movie makes Atlantic City (a poor man’s Las Vegas, even when the stakes are molto high) airless and chilly, more mausoleum than theme park. The story of an Abu Ghraib torturer turned poker ace, The Card Counter is a blistering and nihilistic film about governmental neglect, and how state bureaucracy uses ordinary men to commit acts of extraordinary evil. Little wonder that all suggestion of the American dream has been sucked out and that anonymity and ugliness are the order of the day. It has an interesting parallel with Casino in its foregrounding of an unhappy man who is a gambling genius — an ambiguous hero-antihero who takes no pleasure in winning, but who plays like a machine, resigned to his fate as a cog in an unbreakable system. But where Scorsese shoots the casino in tantalizing technicolor and dresses his ambiguous hero-antihero in teals and lilacs, The Card Counter’s William Tell favors drab utilitarian garb. For Scorsese, the casino is a kind of terrible oasis, a Mount of Temptation with a side of light-up cherries, while for Schrader it is a miserable purgatory of exploitation, disappointment, and a distinct lack of imagination in interior design.
Is there such a thing, I wondered, as a utopian onscreen casino? In David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), the Silver Mustang is the locus of the series’ action in Las Vegas, and it’s there that Dougie Jones — an altered version of the original series’ Agent Cooper, his mind fried from spending 25 years in another purgatorial place — declares himself “Mister Jackpots.” Dropped off at the front door by a weary prostitute named Jade, he enters the casino and immediately sees a light sparkling as if in a video-game above the slot machines that will pay out on the next turn. Blindly stumbling, he moves from one to the next, silver dollars flowing like water from the one-armed bandits as he hits jackpot after jackpot, players around him scooping up the coins and offering thanks, feverishly praising him as a mysterious benefactor. It is as if Agent Cooper’s deep-down, natural goodness, still luminous underneath whatever spell has been cast over him, has turned the place from a den of iniquity into a font of possibility, and the bland casino floor has been injected with a touch of something sweetly supernatural. As Lynchian images go, it is perfect, a depiction of a rosier America that still manages to locate itself within one of the nation’s darkest signifiers. Of course the director who believes, perhaps above all others, in the immutable power of fate would feel perversely drawn to a place built entirely on the promise of chance.