Viva Las Vegas: Why Scorsese's 'Casino' Is a Treasure
Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci are back to the world of gangster cinema for, what is seemingly their last film together, as well as Scorsese’s last film of the crime genre of which he might be most well known for. The Irishman was praised for being a rather reflective movie for Scorsese; many reviews praising Scorsese’s ability to remove any and all glamour from a life of crime, instead telling the audience how much more there is to lose in the life of a mobster than there is to gain. I loved The Irishman myself, and I think it so perfectly displays what Scorsese does best. So, I thought I'd revisit my favorite of Scorsese’s previous gangster movies. A film that so elegantly displays the glamour and grit, as well as the gains and losses of a life of crime.
No, not GoodFellas.
The film opens with a flash forward towards the end. Robert De Niro’s character, Sam “Ace” Rothstein, exiting a building wearing a suit that is a shade of pink/orange that is so bright it could be seen from outer space. Narration from Rothstein gives the audience some advise. “When you love someone, you’ve got to trust them, there’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what's the point?” Rothstein unlocks his car and gets inside. He then admits to us, “And for a while, I believed, that’s the kind of love I had.”
The voiceover cuts away as we hear Ace starting the ignition of his car, an action that causes the car to explode so suddenly it’s almost a jump-scare, and the screen is engulfed in flames. The film’s opening credits proceed with Rothstein floating through the frame amongst a backdrop of fire, a clear image of our lead gangster drifting through hell. The visuals of hellish flames begin to transition to footage of flashing neon lights from Vegas casinos, because what’s the difference?
The structure of Casino is familiar to Scorsese's crime work, even if executed differently. The first act runs through how Rothstein found himself running a Las Vegas casino with the mob, and how the casino stole money from the patrons. The beginning of the film is so heavy with narration that it feels like a nature documentary; one on how predatory animals hunt their prey. It's a tutorial on how the mob does its business in the Sin City, stealing millions. "That's the thing about Las Vegas. We're the only winners. The players don't stand a chance.”
Things begin to spiral for Rothstein when he meets Ginger, captivatingly portrayed by Sharon Stone. Ginger is a gold digger and hustler, who needs to be bribed into loving Rothstein with all the materialistic riches a girl could ever ask for. Ginger’s character is one of the more tragic aspects of the film. She is a product of her environment, having dated a pimp since she was a child, and has become a wild animal, allergic to the domestic life Rothstein tries to pay her to be a part of.
When Ginger finally agrees to marry Rothstein, and they have a daughter together, there is nowhere for any of this to go but south. And south it goes. Rothstein, as strange as it seems considering his violent and unorthodox profession, genuinely wants a normal, happy, and loving relationship with his wife, something she wants nothing to do with as she spirals into a drug and alcohol addiction.
As their faux relationship begins to crack more and more, Ginger gains a closeness to Rothstein's childhood friend and mob extraordinaire Nicky, played by a dialed-to-eleven Joe Pesci. They have an affair and she confides in him about the miserable life with Rothstein she wants to escape so badly. She becomes fed up and forces herself into their former home, in which Rothstein lives with only his daughter. He refuses to let her in, but the police intervene, and allow Ginger a few minutes to grab some of her belongings. She instead breaks the lock on Rothstein’s desk drawer, and steals a key to a deposit box, and makes her way to it, running off with Rothstein's money before he can catch up to her. In the end, despite seemingly having a happily ever after, Ginger overdoses and dies in a cheap hotel hallway.
In the end, everyone goes down. The FBI finds loose ends that the mob didn't tie up, and the mob bosses go to trial. The mob begins to kill anyone who could testify against them. Rothstein gets into his car one day, and when he turns the key, it engulfs in flames. It's the scene from the very beginning of the film, and now we get to see what really happened. Rothstein barely escapes with his life, due to a metal plate under the driver's seat.
Ace Rothstein went to Vegas and got lucky. He suspects Nicky to be behind the bombing, and the mob has him and his brother killed in a corn field. They are not killed in any honorable way. They are beaten and clubbed with baseball bats until visibly bruised and bloody, stripped naked and thrown in a grave. Not the best way to go, but what goes around comes around.
The ending of the film is a somber reflection from Rothstein. He examines how Vegas has changed since he left it, where the old casinos used to stand are now shiny and extravagant theme park casinos. "The big corporations took it all over," Rothstein remarks. "Today it looks like Disneyland."
Scorsese booms operatic music over this sequence, as we see the new Vegas that Rothstein despises. There are shots, upsetting yet amusing, of hoards of geriatrics walking down the stairs of a casino, ready to willingly lose their money. In the film's final scene, Rothstein is back home in San Diego, doing the same thing he did before he went to Vegas. "Why mess up a good thing?" he asks, despite a facial expression that displays disappointment and regret. "And that's that."
While all of Martin Scorsese's gangster based films are spectacular, this one sticks out as special to me, and I can't quite pinpoint why. The Irishman is certainly more personal, and GoodFellas is certainly more iconic. But Casino has a feel and vibe to it that makes it feel completely different from those films despite depicting organized crime through the same actors. Maybe it's the cinematography, that perfectly reflects the excess, shine, and bling of Las Vegas, in the first of four partnerships between Robert Richardson and Martin Scorsese. Maybe it's the perfect performances by De Niro, Pesci, and Stone. Maybe it's the pacing that allows the three hour runtime to go by in what feels like 90 minutes. I don't know what it is that makes Casino particularly special to me, but it is a perfect crime film that I would recommend to be watched by anyone and everyone.