This isn’t a great film. If you look at it in purely entertainment terms, then it is not well acted or especially well directed, and the twist in the plot was fairly foreseeable.
Regardless though, there are several ideas in it which are tied together in interesting ways and are probably worth exploring.
For a film with so much repetition, the most important, key line is only said once in the film. Near the end, Avi turns to Jake Green and says “You are still in prison Jake. In fact, you never left.” The theme of the film is control. Methods of control we can’t see, that we are so used to that we don’t even recognise them for what they are.
Why does Jake go after Macha? He thinks Macha “owes” him and that he “has to pay”. It is made clear by Jake’s brother that he already he has more money than he knows what to do with. Jake is looking to humiliate Macha, in his own casino, and money is a way of keeping score, nothing more.
Later on, when talking about the Three Eddies, Jake describes them in as “flash, loud, proud and stupid”. In the very next scene, Jake has two brothers to the left of him, and one on the right. Count them off, with the descriptions above. The gunfight at the card game happens because Jake was insulted, and instead of brushing it off, he got angry and shot the man instead.
As we later find out, Jake kills the three Eddies by proxy, using a very simple con to get them in deep debt to Macha, who then murders them when they lose his money. He gets his revenge, firstly and primarily against the three Eddies, who forced him to play in the first place, but also against Macha, the man behind them. But it’s not enough.
Pride is the voice in Jake’s head, the enemy he has to beat. The voice becomes most agitated whenever Jake is conciliatory, and in its dialogue with him, is almost manic in its behaviour.
Jake’s money is also his pride. Avi remarks on how “it even smells proud” after he brings it to Avi, to be given away. Jake also talks about how a part of him dies every time he gives some away.
Who is Mr Gold? Two different, but connected concepts: God, and ego, in the pejorative sense. Miss Walker has eight assistants accompanying her. 8+1=9, yesod, the final sephirah before Malkuth. Gold is everywhere and nowhere; he sees everyone and knows everything that is going it. It’s his game, his world. What is the Golden rule? He who has the Gold makes the rules. Gold’s product seems to be cocaine, a drug which acts on the ego, pride, vanity, and can make its users paranoid and anxious. Gold is also the predisposition towards pride and egoistical action inherent in all humans, due to our shared nature. “Mr Gold is pretending to be you.” When our pride is hurt, we often act as if we were hurt, when in fact it is only a single facet of our mind, driving those reactions. The ego can give commands, but there is no reason the rest of the brain has to obey them, except through inherent or situational weakness.
Jake said “we’re all approval junkies”. And what exactly does approval appeal to? Ego gratification.
Gold doesn’t deal with Zach and Avi. He won’t touch them; they’re not part of his game.
Zach and Avi
Zach is intuition. He is the gut feeling that saves Jake on at least one occasion. When he ignores Zach in the casino, he ends up falling down the stairs instead of merely collapsing in the lift. When he pays attention to the note left at his front door, conversely, he narrowly escapes assassination by Sorter. But intuition is by nature reactive, and can only be helpful when dealing with immediate events. Zach is also the master conman, and manipulation of people in a con game relies on intuitive feelings as to how easily they can be manipulated, how to best get what you want out of them. It’s a tactical sense of awareness, but it needs something far more long term to work with.
Avi is intellect. Avi is the one who explains why they are doing what they are doing to Jake, who plays chess with him, who tells him what Gold’s game is. Avi is, as we recall, the chess master, chess being a game that can only be excelled at if you have an aptitude for long term planning and logical, if somewhat abstract thinking. Avi is also often shown to the left of Jake, with Zach on the right. The left pillar in Kabbalah represents the feminine principle (Avi is rather effeminate), the colour black and is headed by Binah, or understanding. Zach, by contrast, represents the right pillar, which is headed by Chokhmah, meaning wisdom and intuitive knowledge.
The rules of the con easily apply to the world in which we live. All sorts of people have an interest in controlling, using and misleading us in order to profit (in various ways) from our mistakes and misunderstanding of the world. The best methods to achieve this, however, are those which already exist in our heads, our latent tendencies to act in particular ways in particular situations which can be anticipated by sufficiently amoral individuals for their own purposes.
Applying the rules
However, knowing the rules also allows one to use them on themselves, to “pull the wool over their own eyes” to better understand how others do it.
The greatest enemy will hide in the last place you would ever look. – Julius Caesar, 75 BC
In the mind itself, that is the last place most people would look. You are your own greatest enemy. You know your own weaknesses and how to manipulate yourself better than anyone, and if one particular drive (such as pride) wants something in particular, then it knows the buttons to push to get them.
The only way to get smarter is by playing a smarter opponent. – Fundamentals of Chess, 1885
Unless you master your own mind, you have reached the limits of your potential. You can only go so far without addressing the inherent flaws that exist in your psyche. To get better, you need to confront your own failings and psychological frailties.
First rule of business, protect your investment. – Etiquette of the Banker, 1775
What is your investment? You. Your autonomy. Your ability to reason, analyze and outthink others. Alternatively, your beliefs are “your” investment. Your beliefs will be used to manipulate you, because you will always act to protect them.
There is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of your enemy. –Niccolo Machiavelli, 1502
The more you attempt to put off the struggle with your ego and pride, the more you avoid the painful process of sorting your head out and breaking the mental chains that have built up, the more entrenched they will become, and the more natural they will feel, until you are unable to distinguish between your ego/pride and yourself.
“From now on, I am bending all the rules, because desperate men do desperate deeds.” Jake is only willing to bend the rules once he is threatened with death, once he is desperate. He is not willing to do what is necessary at any time before then.
“The more control the victim thinks he has, the less control he actually has.” The seeds of every person’s destruction are sown by them. In an environment they think they control, they let their guard down; they act without suspicion, they become gullible and easy. Society as a whole gives people enough rope, in the form of freedom, to hang themselves.
“The opponent simply distracts their victim by getting them consumed with their own consumption.” The basis of the con is appealing to people’s greed. In that sense, a con game appeals to the victim’s own desire for consumption. However, this is also a not very subtle reminder of consumer society, where the aim is getting the victi-er, customer, preoccupied with consumption and with varying brands of almost indistinguishable products. It also indirectly relates back to ego gratification and pride, in that we often identify with the products we buy, and define ourselves by these possessions and what they signify.
“The bigger the trick and the older the trick, the easier it is to pull, because — 1. They think it can’t be that old, 2. They think it can’t be that big.” There is no bigger and older trick in the world than organised religion and the curious pride that being one of the “saved” engenders. Religion is the oldest con game both in the conventional sense and in the sense of being a framework whereby we are psychologically manipulated and controlled, often without realising it.
“When the opponent is challenged or questioned, it means the victim’s investment and thus his intelligence is questioned, no one can accept that.” Doubt is the great enemy of pride and ego. Doubting what you know and your own skills kills the ego very effectively, but is so very hard to do, since few people can really do it properly, can really accept such self-interrogation of their value.
“Embrace the pain and you will win this game.” Ego loss and the swallowing of pride are painful. It sets you against yourself, makes you unstable and question your every action. However, the only way to put a leash on your ego and self-destructive tendencies is to go through this painful process.
“If you change the rules on what controls you, you will change the rules on what you can control.” Putting a leash on the ego opens up new opportunities, new possibilities. You won’t be motivated by anger and minor slights, nor will mental weaknesses like paranoia and anxiety have such a hold on you. You are either an opponent or a victim. By refusing to be controlled, you change status from the former to the latter.
“The more power you think you have in Gold’s world, the less power you have in the real world.” The most powerful are invariably tools of even more powerful people, or to their own innate drives. Macha, for example, ran many illegal games in town, but he was still nothing, a gnat, compared to Mr Gold. Power in Mr Gold’s world derives from what he is willing to give you, to allow you to have. And there is always a price attached with such power. In the real world, the only power you truly have is that which you derive from your own skills and innate cunning, which Gold cannot give or take away.
“Use your perceived enemy to destroy your real enemy.” “Enemies” are useful, in that truly dangerous ones brook no mistakes and will destroy you if you slip up. Even so, they are not as dangerous as the enemy inside your own head. Perceived enemies keep you sharp, in that allowing ego or pride to enter the equation when going up against them is signing your own death warrant. You therefore use your perceived enemy to keep your pride and ego in check. In Jake’s case, apologizing to Macha is the ultimate act of liberation, as it involves absolutely no pride or ego whatsoever. After he has killed his ego, fear has no hold on him, even when Macha brandishes a gun and threatens to kill him.
Macha’s victory over Jake, and the donation in his name to charity, feed his pride and ego. Macha was already a very prideful individual, but now we get to see inside his head. He is extremely angry and indecisive, looking to strike out because of his internal confusion. Macha threatens Gold, but his own internal voice, the Mr Gold inside his head, suggests Gold might get to him first. At the end, Macha loses, because even though he gets the cocaine back, he hasn’t broken Jake Green, and his position as a tool of Mr Gold has only been reconfirmed. His suicide is an act of shame, born of pride and ego, as he cannot handle this failure.
Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur
Later on in the movie, near the end, these two additional quotes appear:
“The only real enemy to have ever existed, is an eternal one.”
—The Road to Suicide, pg 1, line 1
“Your friends are close, but your enemy is closer.”
—The Road to Suicide, pg 1, line 2
Mind you, these are the official black background quotes (or aphorisms if you prefer) that appear throughout the flick. There are plenty of other great lines said by the characters. In particular is this gem, spoken by Mr. Green:
“One thing I’ve learned in the last seven years: in every game and con there’s always an opponent, and there’s always a victim. The trick is to know when you’re the latter, so you can become the former.”
The movie rattled my brain a bit, and, as of yet, I am unable to recommend it to all but the most daring (and open minded) of viewers. If you do happen to summon the courage to see it through, I’d love to hear what you think of it.