It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Owning Mahowny" is about a man seized helplessly with tunnel vision, in the kind of tunnel that has no light at either end. He is a gambler. Cut off temporarily by his bookie, he asks incredulously, "What am I supposed to do? Go out to the track and watch ?" Given the means to gamble, he gambles--thoughtless of the consequences, heedless of the risks, caught in the vise of a power greater than himself. Like all addictive gamblers, he seeks the sensation of losing more money than he can afford. To win a great deal before losing it all back again creates a kind of fascination: Such gamblers need to confirm over and over that they cannot win.
The film is based on the true story of a Toronto bank vice president who began by stealing exactly as much as he needed to clear his debts at the track ($10,300) and ended by taking his bank for $10.2 million. So intent is he on this process that he rarely raises his voice, or his eyes, from the task at hand. Philip Seymour Hoffman, that fearless poet of implosion, plays the role with a fierce integrity, never sending out signals for our sympathy because he knows that Mahowny is oblivious to our presence. Like an artist, an athlete or a mystic, Mahowny is alone within the practice of his discipline.
There have been many good movies about gambling, but never one that so single-mindedly shows the gambler at his task. Mahowny has just been rewarded at work with a promotion and a raise. He drives a clunker even the parking lot attendants kid him about. His suits amuse his clients. He is engaged to Lisa (Minnie Driver), a teller who is the very embodiment of a woman who might be really pretty if she took off those glasses and did something about her hair.
He is so absorbed in gambling that even his bookie (Maury Chaykin) tries to cut him off, to save himself the trouble of making threats to collect on the money Mahowny owes him. "I can't do business like this," the bookie complains, and at another point, when Mahowny is so rushed, he only has time to bet $1,000 on all the home teams in the National League and all the away teams in the American, the bookie finds this a breach of ethics: He is in business to separate the gambler from his money, yes, but his self-respect requires that the gambler to make reasonable bets. When Mahowny moves up a step by stealing larger sums and flying to Atlantic City to lose them, he encounters a more ruthless and amusing professional. John Hurt plays the manager of the casino like a snake fascinated by the way a mouse hurries forward to be eaten. Hurt has seen obsessive gamblers come and go and is familiar with all the manifestations of their sickness, but this Mahowny brings a kind of grandeur to his losing.