Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) doesn’t celebrate with a fist pump when he hits a big craps roll in Owning Mahowny—he nudges his glasses back up his nose. He doesn’t moan in despair when he drops a $5,000 hand of blackjack—he hunches his shoulders a bit more tightly. From his expression and his demeanor, you probably wouldn’t have a clue whether Mahowny was up a million or down a million. You might not even be able to tell if his breath would fog glass.
Dan Mahowny is a nearly impossible man to read, and director Richard Kwietniowski doesn’t try to make it any easier. He’ll shoot Hoffman from behind at a pivotal moment, or use the high angles of casino surveillance cameras that leave his eyes in the shadow of his brows. But Mahowny’s impenetrability is one of the things that makes Owning Mahowny such a fascinating character study. There’s never been a cinematic examination of compulsive gambling that captures its adrenalized allure so brilliantly while keeping such a poker face.
It’s also based on a stranger-than-fiction true story. In the early 1980s, Mahowny has just become assistant manager of his Toronto bank, a promotion that includes supervising huge lines of credit for businesses. Though his bosses would have no way of knowing, this is a huge mistake: Mahowny has a major gambling addiction and suddenly finds himself with access to millions of dollars in ready cash. Siphoning funds from existing accounts and manufacturing bogus ones, Mahowny begins financing weekend trips to an Atlantic City casino, staying a step ahead of bank oversight while becoming known to the casino manager (John Hurt) as a favored high roller.
The big-money facts of the case—Mahowny’s fraud eventually hit a total over $10 million—certainly make it a sexier sell, and the film does find intrigue in the moments when Mahowny appears on the verge of being found out. But ultimately, the police blotter details are a feint to get at the man who pulled off such an astonishing white-collar heist.
Kwietniowski’s revelation is that Mahowny succeeded as a crook for the same reason he couldn’t resist a wager. As smartly played by the always riveting Hoffman, Dan Mahowny lives a virtually passionless existence, an invisible ergo trustworthy cog in a conservative financial machine. No one suspects him of misbehavior because he offers no evidence of appetite, which is why he so desperately needs to feed his betting jones: Only one thing in his life gives him any sense of being alive. Mahowny’s bookie (Maury Chaykin) bluntly sums up that Mahowny only wins “so he’ll have the money to keep losing,” but he only gets it half right. Neither winning nor losing particularly matter to Mahowny, since both give him the rush of pleasure he can’t find anywhere else.
With so much going on beneath the surface of Mahowny’s character, it’s inevitably a downer whenever the narrative drifts away to obligatory subplots. We follow investigators as they piece together the case against Mahowny, knowing that while we may only be here because of the crime, the crime itself feels largely incidental to its impact on Mahowny’s habit. More distracting still are domestic troubles between Mahowny and his long-suffering live-in girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver). It’s a thankless role, and not just because Driver is saddled with a classic Farrah 1980s ’do. She’s simply playing the understanding martyr, always there for her man for reasons we can never quite comprehend. At least when Mahowny continues to play a sucker’s game, we get a sense for why.
Whenever it’s not worried about its protagonist’s legal or romantic future, Owning Mahowny slinks along on a slick score by The Insects and Kwietniowski’s confident pacing. He never tries to play up the frantic visuals of the casinos, more content to showcase the magnetic performances by Hoffman and Hurt (who was equally brilliant in Kwietniowski’s debut feature Love and Death on Long Island). It’s so effectively understated for so long, it’s something of a disappointment when Kwietniowski buckles and has Mahowny confess to a therapist what we’ve already figured out about his addiction. There’s much more to the story when it lingers behind the stare of a man whose pulse only quickens when the chips are down.