Casinos spend a lot of time and effort presenting a shiny surface of glamour and easy money, but croupier Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) sees it from the other side. Night after night, he deals blackjack and spins the roulette wheel, getting an adrenaline rush from watching gamblers lose over and over again.

Even though casinos hold out an alluring carrot — the perpetual promise of winning — Jack knows the odds are stacked against every "punter" who walks through the door. Odds aren’t much better that he’ll become a successful novelist, but Jack approaches his job at London’s Golden Lion casino with an anthropologist’s eye, believing his intimate knowledge will serve as the basis for a best-selling book.

Croupier, in fact, is all about perception, the limitations and mind-expanding possibilities of seeing life through a particular filter. Screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth) and director Mike Hodges (Get Carter) have created a startling, claustrophobic thriller which adopts Jack’s cool, detached gaze. Owen’s succinctly deadpan narration serves as a telling counterpoint to Jack’s carefully contained actions, truly providing his character with an inner voice.

Even though Croupier is unapologetically Jack-centric, his fate is continually determined by outside forces, particularly three women: Jack’s girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee), a store detective who prefers a bohemian stay-at-home writer to a tense casino drone; Jani (Alex Kingston), an enigmatic and charismatic gambler who shares Jack’s South African roots; and Bella (Kate Hardie), a fellow croupier whose calculated ruthlessness makes her Jack’s equal.

The environment of Croupier, mostly brightly lit nighttime interiors, adds to the feeling that everything is taking place on the fringes of normal life, where rules are made to be interpreted, not strictly followed. Simon Fisher Turner’s jazz-inflected score adds an appealingly noirish feel to the proceedings.

Jack himself doesn’t gamble and he hates cheats. Yet the driving force of his life is constantly being on the lookout for what he can get away with. He has no apparent moral center, just the will to always be in control.

For this croupier, gambling is the ultimate mind game.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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