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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

CineVegas Dispatch: Vegas: Based on a True Story

This inhuman place makes human monsters. — Stephen King, The Shining
About halfway through Vegas: Based on a True Story, a film about two former heavy gamblers struggling to keep free of their addiction and make a decent life for their young son while continuing to live in a town where gambling is front and center, the above quote from The Shining popped into my head and stayed there.
Like The Shining, this is a story about a man with an addiction — and some underlying personality issues that his addictive behavior draws to the surface — and the way that monster within leads him to destroy himself and his family. The line between love and hate, security and utter ruin, is thinner than many of us might like to believe, and director Amir Naderi explores the dark spaces in between here, peeking through the lens of Las Vegas not just as the stereotypical glitzy destination for gamblers, pleasure seekers and lost souls, but as a place where people live and work and raise their families.

Eddie (Mark Greenfield) and Tracy (Nancy La Scala) are the gambling addicts who’ve pulled themselves out of the murky realms of addiction to build themselves a nice, stable life — at least on the surface. Eddie works at a used tire store, Tracy’s a waitress at a diner, and their young son Mitch (Zach Thomas) is a good boy who minds his parents, does well at school, and has a cute girlfriend. The family has moved a few steps up the success ladder from dingy trailer park to small, but neat house. Eddie works his mundane job to pays the bills, while occasionally sneaking a few minutes on the slots and having a beer, then lying to his wife about what he’s been up to.
Tracy, aside from occasional side bets with a fellow waitress about customers at the diner, has transfered her obsession with gambling into an obsession for controlling the tenuous hold on happiness they’ve manage to carve out. Their house has a pretty green yard, nicely landscaped with flowers, in spite of what it costs them on their water bill. Tracy has a greenhouse where she grows tomatoes, and every inch of the house, as we see in an early scene when Mitch comes in from school, is neat as a pin.
The floor is spotless, the kitchen sparkles, shoes come off when you walk in the door; there’s a place for everything and everything in its place, but Tracy’s determination to make the family’s house a perfect home has a desperate edge to it, as she nags and controls both husband and son in her need to maintain a sense order. This family dynamic establishes early on that Tracy (not unlike Wendy Torrance, the mom in The Shining) is the one keeping the family’s relative stability and peace intact, while Eddie (not unlike Wendy’s husband, Jack) toes the line … but with his inner resentment at his wife’s nagging and control lurking just beneath the surface.
Tracy’s hold on her family’s well-being is threatened when a mysterious stranger comes, first to offer to buy the little house Tracy has worked so hard to make into a home, and then to reveal that he believes there’s a million dollars in a suitcase buried somewhere under Tracy’s carefully maintained yard. What happens next, as Eddie and eventually even Tracy grow increasingly obsessed with unearthing that money, is an obvious allegory to the darker side of Vegas, but it’s as much about the perils of addiction and obsession generally, and how that obsession can, like Jack’s drinking combined with the mysterious allure of power and freedom promised by the haunted Overlook Hotel in The Shining, grow with alarming rapidity to become the most important thing in a person’s life, supplanting the safety and security of home and steady work.
It’s the kind of darkness that can turn even a good man into a monster who will forget his love for and responsibility to his wife and son, and if you’ve ever had an addict in your life, this aspect of the film will sucker-punch you hard in the gut, over and over again. It’s not really the inhumanity of the place — whether the Overlook Hotel or Las Vegas — that makes human monsters; it’s the darkness of the soul that latches onto an excuse to unleash itself from reason and responsibility, a deep selfishness and ugliness that takes over what makes us human, and can turn us into something darker, uglier.
The film, in all honesty, is about 20 minutes too long, and there are some plot holes that get in the way here and there (not the least of which is why recovering gambling addicts would choose to stay in the place that calls daily to their addiction, though I suppose there are a lot of folks like that in Vegas) and, more concerningly, with a plot twist at about the 2/3 mark that raises more questions than it answers, in a very distracting way. I have to wonder whether the fact that this film has four screenwriters listed contributed to those issues; director Amir Naderi seems otherwise to have a sure hand with what he wants to explore through this film, and I kind of wonder why he felt the need to have other writers muck about with his idea, but so it goes.
In spite of those minor flaws, I was captivated by this film and drawn into the horror of this 12-year-old boy helplessly witnessing his world collapse around him. Immediately after watching the film, the issues I had with it had me on the fence, and I was leaning toward “liked it, but with some strong reservations.” Having sat on it overnight, though, the film has stuck with me, and I find myself thinking about the characters in the film, and feeling oddly sad for the fate that befell them. Naderi hits on some hard truths about addiction and relationships, and those aspects of the film ring very true.
Naderi gets some strong performances from his cast; I liked both Greenfield and La Scala — Greenfield in particular is wrenching to watch when that monster inside of him takes hold — but the standout performance here is from the young newcomer Thomas, who plays the role of this kid whose world is falling apart minus any of the preening at the camera often seen by young actors. It’s an excellent performance that reminded me, in an way, of the raw honesty Edward Furlong brought to the role of John Connor in Terminator 2, and I’d like to see more of him in the future.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon