In the opening credits sequence of Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino, the words “Adapted From a True Story” are prominently displayed. But how much of it is true? How much of it is “adapted?” How much comes from the mind of Martin Scorsese? The film begins with Robert De Niro’s character Sam “Ace” Rothstein, getting blown sky high in a car bomb. “When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them,” he says. Later on, it turns out Rothstein wasn’t really killed by the car bomb, despite what the papers said. Scorsese spends the whole film playing with perceptions and perspectives like this, and it makes for an immensely interesting, and a wonderfully devious cinematic experience.
Scorsese is no stranger to true story movies, having worked with everything from a portrayal of boxer Jake La Motta’s life in Raging Bull to an exuberant romp through the life of east coast gangsters in Goodfellas. While those are arguably better films, there is no Scorsese film that has stretched and prodded the nature of truth in such a deliberately bombastic way as Casino. The voiceover switches from De Niro’s seemingly straight-laced handicapper to his psychopathic friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) on a whim. This quick transfer is indicative of Scorsese’s intention to never give the audience an objective view into what is going on in his film. Is Rothstein’s wife Ginger (Sharon Stone) just a troubled and confused woman, or is she far more sinister? Is Rothstein a bad guy, or a Job-like figure caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time? Everything goes from peachy to shambles in minutes, and it is never wholly clear who is directly responsible for the fall. Before him, the mafioso motion picture was never a landscape of moral clarity, but Scorsese brings proceedings to the murkiest depths of human consciousness.
Much of what makes Goodfellas so grey in its views of right and wrong is its setting. Las Vegas is the American capital of debauchery, a shining Eden in the middle of a North American Desert. People often criticize Scorsese for celebrating gangsters, but more often, Scorsese is filming the stories exactly as the gangster would see them. Everything is coated in loud music and exuberance, but the killings are still brutal. The truth of the entire matter is entrenched in questions and incongruities, but the unsettling and intense feeling one gets while watching it all is very palpable, absolutely real, and, thus, un-celebrated.
There is a shot towards the end of Casino in which Ace is left in a literal cloud of dust in the desert after Pesci’s character threatens him and drives away. It’s a simple shot, a physicality showing how Rothstein psychically exists in that moment. He sees himself as being behind the eight ball, standing in the dust. It’s a shot that’s been established as cliche, used in hundreds of old westerns. One can easily imagine some John Wayne figure riding stoically away on a horse, leaving some faceless bandit in the swirling desert sand. This is where much of Scorsese’s influence lies. Scorsese always looks to classics to tell of the coming of the new.
And Casino is about old ways falling like a house of cards and giving way to the future in the most violent way possible. If it sounds familiar, that is because it is the same story of the fall of the Old
West. It’s the same archetypal story of any establishment destroyed in a fury of blood and fire. At the end of Casino, there are shots of the old casinos being blown up and replaced by the more plastic, commercial, Disney-fied establishments. The Tangiers gives way to Caesar’s Palace, so on and so forth. This could just as easily be the railroad cutting through old wild western frontier towns. In any time, in any context, change does not come easily, and that is what much of Casino is about. Nothing lasts for long. The tagline on the original poster for Casino reads: “No One Stays At The Top Forever.” This might be a more literal and accurate interpretation of Casino than any critic has offered since.
Watching Casino in this day and age has the potential to disappoint. With the similar Goodfellas having vastly overshadowed it in the film history books and Scorsese having trodden the dangers of greed and excess various times before and after, Casino seems like it would come across as nothing more than a director phoning it in, doing what he’s repeatedly done. It would seem like that, but in reality, after all these years, Casino holds up like gangbusters. Every frame bursts with a remarkable vitality that only Scorsese could create. It is, like all great films, timeless. What is true? What is fiction? These questions may never be clearly answered, but one thing that remains fact is that Martin Scorsese, perhaps more than anyone else, knows what is honest.