starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Maury Chaykin, John Hurt
screenplay by Maurice Chauvet, based on the Gary Stephen Ross book Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony
directed by Richard Kwietniowski
by Walter Chaw Richard Kwietniowski's Owning Mahowny charts the mendacity of addiction with something like a poet's lyrical melancholy. The director's follow-up to his surprisingly gentle take on Thomas Mann, Love and Death on Long Island, finds another story of obsessive love that is itself obsessed with the importance of place in defining the accumulated essence of identity and desire. Kwietniowski's films seem to be about secret outsiders finding themselves at some point swept out to proverbial sea, the land fading fast. While in Love and Death on Long Island that divorce illustrates the reach traversed by reclusive novelist Giles De'Ath (John Hurt) to claim his inamorata, in Owning Mahowny, the widening gyre is considerably (and deliciously) more complicated; the film marks Kwietniowski's emergence as the most promising cartographer of self-confessional mortification since countryman Terence Davies. And Kwietniowski does it all with gentle, uncompromising humour.
Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a non-descript banker on the rise trusted with his branch's top accounts. As the film opens, we join Dan in a shrink session, contemplating man's public life, private life, and secret life. Afflicted with a crippling gambling addiction, over the course of a very short period of time, Dan embezzles over ten million dollars to feed his habit--one that includes placing blanket wagers on every MLB game on the books and receiving free Leer Jet charters from Toronto to Atlantic City on the casino's dime. John Hurt is fabulous and feral as casino manager Victor Foss, appraising Hoffman's dishevelled, miserable putz as a speculator appraises a ton of horse meat: "He's magnificent, a thoroughbred."
Over the course of Owning Mahowny, triplicates that define the individual cement themselves as bedrock of equal footing--the public/private/secret separation of an individual's life echoes Dan's three environments (the austere sterility of his bank, the garish sterility of an Atlantic City casino, the literal sterility of the unfurnished apartment he shares with girlfriend Belinda (Minnie Driver)) as well as the trio of rifts that open beneath him as his gambling addiction takes hold (romantically between Dan and Belinda, financially between Dan and his bookies, and criminally between Dan and his bank). Kwietniowski is careful not to glamorize Mahowny's addiction, offering the most trenchant insight into the gambling bug since that old "Twilight Zone" episode where a gambler is sent to a Hell where he always wins. In fact, a creeping suspicion begins to dawn that the director sees Dan and Belinda as circus sideshows held sway by Foss's barker--even Dan's Toronto bookie, the dim-witted Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin), is dim-witted in such a way as to suggest the tragi-comical.
It's that feeling of grand disaster that fuels the sometimes disquieting undertones of the capering of Buster Keaton and the Marx Bros., captured and redefined here in something of a divine burlesque comedy that follows bedraggled Dan through his oft-confused search for love and spiritual completion. Richly, Owning Mahowny draws parallels between bank owners and casino managers, between Dan's compulsion and the desire of one woman (Sonja Smits) to wager millions on her entrepreneurial pursuit, and between addicts and the chronically smitten. The realization at the end of the picture that it is less an indictment of gambling than about the absolute human need for a compulsion to provide definition is one that haunts the small hours. Owning Mahowny is, a little like its titular protagonist, unremarkable at first glance, maybe a little drab, but possessed of vertiginous depths and a dizzying number of revealing avenues for contemplation. The film's title is not so much in reference to the addiction that claimed a man as it is a warning and an invitation to embrace a collective shadow. Originally published: May 1, 2003.