Owning Mahowny Review
Overlooked for a cinema release in the UK, Owning Mahowny arrives on region 2 DVD in search of an audience; it certainly deserves one. A low-key, muted character study, it plays exceptionally well on the small screen – which may explain its lack of theatrical distribution – but more importantly, this film (made around the same time as Love Liza) finally sees Philip Seymour Hoffman properly promoted to a leading role. He’s shared top-billing in the past – with De Niro in Flawless for example – and he’s been part of an ensemble on a number of occasions but this is the first time he has received sole above-the-title status. Interestingly, Hoffman doesn’t compromise in order to make this move; the role exists in the same arena as his previous incarnations, so much so that it feels as though one of these characters has been afforded their own feature. How many times have you wanted that to happen ?
As Hoffman has often done in the past, director Richard Kwietniowski approaches his potentially oddball subject with compassion and plays it totally straight, looking for the emotional core rather than the quirky ironies. Owning Mahowny is based on true events that occurred in Canada between 1980 and 1982 (though this is no nostalgia fest), following Dan Mahowny (Hoffman), a man so hopelessly addicted to gambling (or ‘financial difficulties’ as he euphemistically describes it) that it overshadows every other aspect of his life and leads to him funding his habit by stealing from the bank which employs him. If a comparison is needed then Karel Reisz’s 1974 updating of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler is particularly apt. Neither film is a cruel peek into the downfall of a seemingly ordinary man but a simultaneously sensitive and brutally honest character study.
There is however a huge difference between Hoffman and the star of Reisz’s film, James Caan. Hoffman doesn’t have the look of a typically ‘Hollywood’ leading man, especially those who populate Hollywood, in the way that Caan did, and this makes his a fascinating figure to watch, even if it explains the reluctance of filmmakers to place him up-front. Moreover, he possesses a chameleon quality despite his distinctive frame which has allowed him to succeed in roles as diverse as the ones he played in Almost Famous, Boogie Night and The Talented Mr Ripley. In many ways, it is the face which holds the key and it is this which Kwietniowski focuses on. The pattern seems to be either close-ups or cover-ups; at one moment, looming in to capture Hoffman’s eyes begin to water as a massive loss dawns on him, at the next unable to capture anything besides his awkward bulk as he uneasily positions himself away from the camera, allowing his posture to convey the emotions.
Indeed, this isn’t the place for melodrama, though the ‘true events’ tag might suggest otherwise. Certainly, things start out bad for Dan Mahowny and get worse, but the impression is given that the film is starting out when things have already reached a low point and are now worsening even further. This is certainly no morality tale as the audience never gets to glimpse his life at a particularly good point. This aspect is interesting as it gives the film an odd pace. Tension does creep in from time to time as the debts mount and the opportunity to repay them may appear, but the lack of context to Mahowny’s own life prevents the film from taking things down an audience-pleasing route. The film, therefore, rocks gently back and forth, seemingly going nowhere slowly but actually dragging the viewer in ever-closer. Because of this, it is the textures of Mahowny’s life which receive the focus, as if searching for some meaning to the character through his demeanour at work or reaction to strangers will some prompt some understanding of his addictive impulses.
Outside of the wonderfully nuanced score by the Insects, much of Owning Mahowny takes its cue from Hoffman’s portrayal. The cinematography has a starkness, perhaps even blandness, that is the equal of Hoffman’s complexion – indeed the actor almost disappears amidst the backdrop at times – and the blue-grey of the CCTV images that capture him either working or ‘at play’. The weather remains perpetually grey and the traditional glitz of big screen casinos is rendered surprisingly neutral. Even the people who populate these environments blend in effortlessly despite some being played by those with star status. Maury Chakin, of course, is in his element in this kind of picture, having worked on occasion with Atom Egoyan, but Minnie Driver is completely unrecognisable buried under an unbecoming blonde wig and glasses. John Hurt also disguises himself behind an American accent and unsightly fake tan, though refuses the grandstanding these characteristics could induce.
Despite the supporting role status, Hurt’s character – the casino boss who twists the rules time and again to draw Mahowny back – is highly important to the film’s success. Indeed, in many ways, he forms its centre as the relationship he strikes up with Mahowny is the only genuine one to be found (Minnie Driver may be playing the girlfriend, but playing is all the character does). There’s an uneasy but mutual respect between these two men that makes for fascinating viewing. The key image of Hurt is behind the casino monitors, looking not unlike Ed Harris in The Truman Show. Like Harris, Hurt comes across as a kind of loving nemesis which makes the trajectory of Owning Mahowny perhaps inevitable but also oddly touching. And , of course, inevitability and predictability are not the same thing. A future cult film, one hopes.
No extras whatsoever though some input from director and stars would be enthusiastically welcomed. As such, Owning Mahowny relies on its presentation and doesn’t disappoint. The chilly cinematography gets the crisp anamorphic transfer it deserves, making the film exude a clinical precision. Elsewhere, the sound is provided in a Dolby Digital 5.0 mix which replicates the atmosphere of the casino superbly and allows for a full appreciation of the wonderful score. English subtitles are also provided.