William Monahan’s script for the 2006 mob caper "The Departed" deservedly won him an Academy Award. The Boston-born Irish American is the screenwriter of the latest Mark Wahlberg vehicle "The Gambler", a gritty tale of reluctant redemption that’s quite unlike anything else on offer at the movies this month.
What marks Monahan’s works out from other mainstream fare at the box office are their literary qualities and their deep philosophical richness, in an era where most mainstream dramas look more like video games and less like life.
Although he doesn’t personally have time for the casinos or the games of chance that fill his new screenplay, Monahan’s own life has been a bit of a gamble in its own right. First of all he had to forge his own path toward his brilliant career from a background that suggested it would probably never happen, which has filled him with as many interesting contradictions as any character he has ever written.
In "The Gambler" Monahan introduces us to Jim Bennett, a literary professor who moonlights as a high stakes gambler, and a man deep in the process of divesting himself of everything that tethers him to this world.
The contrast between the character’s outer calm and inner hunger is very compelling and it's rare for a Hollywood script, an actor or a director to allow for this much complexity, but Monahan’s managed to smuggle in a great deal of contraband.
Take your pick here: stinging critiques of the modern novel, the complete inability of cash to cure the soul, the way that the disavowal of complexity reassures the mediocre, and the way what we risk can reveal what we value.
“My job is getting things through, and I can’t say that enough,” Monahan tells the Irish Voice. “Most films as we all know are worked-over crap with 17 writers, or they’ve been worked over in post to be more like other films, in a desperate and usually unsuccessful bid to make a genre product when the money is in distinction.”
There are interesting echoes of The Graduate in The Gambler. At times the adults flounder more than the young, the teacher knows less than the students. Playing it safe is digging your own grave, we’re shown – would Monahan agree?
“I do think and have always thought that playing it safe is digging your own grave. Had I listened to one single person as a young man I’d not have ever had the chance to do what I can for my family now,” he says.
There's a famous darkness in the Irish approach to life and experience. It’s in O'Neill and it’s clearly in Monahan’s work.
“I have a double birthday-present from the gods in that I am very Irish and structurally Catholic but, being from Boston, I am equally a Boston Puritan. That’s two systems of self-abnegation converging and not an easy blanket of nihilism to fight your way out of. It’s certainly had its effect,” Monahan says.
“As a younger man knowing that I had some sort of talent I found myself a bit paralyzed, by Catholic nihilism and Boston doubt, but one lucky day it struck me that yes we all die, but there’s a period before that when you can do anything you want, and if you’re going to do anything, do everything.
“We can be a medieval people, the Irish, if I can say that, because I hate a plastic paddy, but my own father, however splendid he was as a man, and he was splendid, was content to regard existence as a thing to be endured rather than dominated. I came more from a mindset that if I was going to be here at all I was going to be king or be hanged. I think I gave the old man sort of a tremendous delight.”
Monahan’s father wasn’t going to change, but he knew his son was going all or nothing and it thrilled him to the bone. “I had the benefit of meeting Peter O’Toole, another son of the diaspora -- as brilliant a writer as an actor by the way, which is saying something -- and I think he wrote in a journal when he was very young that he simply refused to be ordinary, and heavens did he accomplish that, from a nowhere in Yorkshire. You couldn’t worm a twig in between his working class nowhere and mine,” Monahan said.
“As an American one can never really say that one comes from one class or another, but more or less has experience with all of them, if only through divorce, and that can make us rather flexible and dangerous. I had the opportunity to see through several levels of society and belong to none of them and being transatlantic in my life and work has not hurt, either.”
That flexibility and danger is in every scene of Monahan’s remarkable new script. The Gambler is now playing nationwide.