What few people know about Martin Scorsese is that he has never made a gangster film. No, really. Mean Streets wasn’t about gangsters, it was about Catholic guilt. GoodFellas wasn’t about gangsters, it was about the American dream as seen in a cracked mirror. Casino isn’t about gangsters, either. Taken together, these films (all set largely in the ’70s, when Scorsese came to prominence) form a trilogy of rise-and-fall stories, lovingly crafted and intricately detailed, addressing all the key American themes: money, sex, power, love, death, religion, family, above all ambition — the hot desire to move up, move out, move ahead. (Scorsese’s camera expresses the motion of motivation.) Casino, a true epic, pulls it all together and yet leaves us with chilling food for thought about what it all means. The movie is about business. There’s business, and then there’s everything else. Eventually there is nothing else.
Scorsese is working again with Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote GoodFellas based on his fascinating piece of journalism Wiseguy. After GoodFellas, Pileggi threw himself into researching the web of mob connections in Las Vegas; his work yielded a book and now this script. Pileggi lets his subjects talk in their own voices, with little authorial intrusion, and both GoodFellas and Casino are densely journalistic. The characters narrate while Scorsese’s images underline (and sometimes contradict) their words. At one point he even provides subtitles translating the code phrases they use to foil the feds. People talk and talk about how Vegas works, and Scorsese’s camera sprints to keep up. He’s like an energetic tour guide making sure we understand everything.
Casino revolves around two hollow men. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a bookie with a scientific genius for picking winners, positions himself as the boss of the mob-run Tangiers hotel. Ace is cool and rational and shrewd — the perfect man to oversee a casino, because he knows it’s in his best financial interests to keep the mob bosses back home happy, and the bosses know he won’t get stupid about the fortunes rolling in. He dresses flamboyantly, in a variety of dandyish pastels ranging from peach to pistachio, but under the suits he’s perhaps the most unflamboyant man Scorsese has ever put on the screen. Ace’s opposite number, and boyhood buddy, is Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), who comes out to Vegas looking to carve himself a niche. Nicky offers his services as Ace’s unofficial muscle, and quickly gains a rep as a mercurial sociopath. Ace may shake his head at Nicky’s savagery, but Nicky is great advertising: To mess with Ace is to mess with Nicky, and you don’t want to mess with Nicky.
Scorsese knows these guys; he’s comfortable with them. But every director has an Achilles heel, and Scorsese’s has always been women. He can see them only from the outside, and the third leg of Casino is weak. Ginger (Sharon Stone), the glamorous hustler whom Ace marries and Nicky has an affair with, has no visible inner life. De Niro narrates, Pesci narrates, even Frank Vincent (as Nicky’s right-hand man) gets to narrate a quick anecdote, but Stone never gets a turn. That’s a shame, because this is Stone’s breakthrough performance — vibrant, alive, operatic in its extremes of mink-fur bliss and bottom-dog torment — all the more so because she’s working against a script that barely bothers to humanize her. Ginger is the wild card, the untrustworthy junkie bitch who brings chaos into the boys’ club. Ace, usually the epitome of caution, throws caution to the wind and falls deeply in love with her, or so we’re told; we don’t really understand why. (The book isn’t much help either.)
Luckily for Scorsese, Casino doesn’t rest its full weight on this ill-starred love triangle (or it would collapse). Its real meat is the tragic theme of the hothead prevailing (with disastrous results) over the cooler head, a Biblical theme (think of Cain and Abel) that links the movie with Mean Streets and GoodFellas. Ace keeps his pulse steady unless something threatens his bottom line: an incompetent slots manager, an inattentive cook in the casino kitchen. (One of the funniest moments in the entire Scorsese portfolio to date occurs here when we get to watch Robert De Niro going ballistic over the amount of blueberry in a muffin.) Nicky, on the other hand, is a back-home street thug with his eyes on the prize. Power to him means being feared. He doesn’t use his head, and after a while the bosses back home start to wonder if he’s worth the trouble. Joe Pesci may seem to have already gotten an Oscar for this performance, but Nicky is different from his other psycho, Tommy, in GoodFellas. Tommy had fun being a hard-ass — that was what made him scary — but Nicky, mesmerized by the gold in the desert, doesn’t have much fun. Money is serious. The more you have, the more you have to worry about losing it.
Even by Scorsese standards, the violence in Casino is exceptionally harsh. There’s not as much of it, and the brutality is parcelled out over three hours, but when it happens, it’s always uniquely grotesque, rage-filled, almost intimate; there are at least three scenes that make the notorious Billy Batts pistol-whipping in GoodFellas look nearly serene. Part of what makes the savagery here so haunting is that there’s no Henry Hill looking on in horror; nobody looks on in horror. To the extent that ghastly beatings and stabbings keep things moving smoothly, they’re tolerated. By the time someone ends up betrayed in the middle of a corn field, beaten beyond recognition and buried alive in the desert, the cruelty has the sting of Greek tragedy.
The men in Casino have calcified far beyond the Ray Liotta character in GoodFellas, who got off on the sensual pleasures of being a hot-shot. These Vegas men, lured long ago by the siren song of money, have long since crashed on the rocks. Ace derives no pleasure from his grandly successful casino or even from his family. De Niro plays his one note skillfully, sometimes introducing a second note — Ace’s conflicted feelings for Ginger, which bring out a frightened vulnerability De Niro hasn’t shown in a while. But ultimately only one thing matters to Ace, and it’s not until he loses everything that he is restored to himself: he goes back to picking winners. It’s a classic Scorsese finish — redemption by self-destruction. Casino has been criticized for being cold, and unfairly compared with GoodFellas, as if the collaboration of De Niro, Pesci, and Scorsese made it an unofficial sequel. Scorsese takes risks based on the nature of his material. Love and honor mean nothing in this movie because in Vegas, nothing means anything except money. As Michael Corleone said, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” Casino is Scorsese’s personal epic about business, and he seals it with a devastating joke. The mob loses its grip on Vegas, and at the end, we see the new casinos — shining castles built by corporations, the mob of the future.