The Atlantic City Story


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Atlantic City Story
"Butash brings us close to these characters when they are at their most raw and exposed."

In the morning, Jane (Jessica Hecht) receives birthday greetings from her husband; then he goes out to work. She sits at the table in her spacious, elegant house, listening to a familiar clock chime away the hours. How many time has she sat at this table? Watching her, we can sense the years stretching away behind her. Will the future be just the same?

There's a peculiar melancholy about long bus journeys. On many such buses there is somebody in the act of leaving everything they know behind. Jane watches from the window, her collar pulled up high, a scarf around her neck like armour against the unknown. The score is in a minor key as the lights of Atlantic city swell through the rain. This is one of the few centres for legal casino gambling in the eastern US, and a tourist hotspot, but the mood is very different from Las Vegas. Shot in the off-season, the city looks almost deserted, grey and listless during daylight hours. When darkness falls those lights are not red and gold but cool shades of blue.

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There's a bluesy mood to Henry Butash's feature début, for all that it uses opera as its score (Tosca, at the end, feels like commentary on how the story might have gone if less subtly handled). Jane knew she wanted to get away and there's a reason why she's washed up in this place but she doesn't really know what she wants or how to respond to her complicated feelings. A trip to the casino seems like more than nostalgia - it is, perhaps, a wilful surrender of fortune to the wind. But she's too smart to release her grip completely - unlike the young man she meets there and, on impulse, follows outside, watching him stand alone against the fury of the ocean.

This is Arthur (Mike Faist), for whom gambling is more than a distraction. Around 2,241 people are estimated to have died by suicide as a result of gambling addiction in the US in 2020 alone; Arthur is aware of the dangers and fully expects to meet the same fate, but has no idea how he might stop himself. His plight arouses Jane's concern. She's in a position to help with his immediate problems and she does so, whilst wise enough to avoid anything that might facilitate his habit. They're both lonely people looking for connection and meaning, and as they drift through the city over the course of the next few days, they form a friendship which provides each of them with the impetus for change.

Is this a romance? Yes, there's a little of that, but it's almost beside the point. Jane knows that their connection may only be temporary and whilst Arthur may be open to more daring possibilities, she understands that that's a side of his personality which he cannot afford to indulge. It's also clear that Butash is disinclined to present us with anything so conventional. His lively handheld camera, his soundtrack full of waves and wind, everything points to a focus on what is happening in the moment. It is the now that matters, not anything else. Dialogue is delivered in a similar style and though it's not hard o guess the overall arc of the film, one never feels certain of how any one scene will go.

Butash cut his teeth working with Terence Malick and his film shares that characteristic sense of great possibility inherent in small things, of the freedom that stems from the awareness of having a choice. Though she might seem to be the one in control, Jane, to, is struggling to resist falling into an expected pattern, striving to make a decision that is truly her own. Butash brings us close to these characters when they are at their most raw and exposed. His epilogue restores calm like the sleeping ocean, but only when we have come to appreciate the currents that rage beneath the surface.

Editor's note: If you've been affected by problem gambling, GamCare are available to help in the UK and the National Council on Problem Gambling offers a similar service in the US.

Reviewed on: 01 Jun 2021
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The Atlantic City Story packshot
Hitting Atlantic City, Jane forms an unlikely bond with a young gambler. But she can’t run from her marriage forever.

Director: Henry Butash

Writer: Henry Butash

Starring: Jessica Hecht, Mike Faist, Gary Wilmes, Nina Hellman, Emily Donahoe

Year: 2020

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: US


Cheltenham 2021

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