Written by Martin Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi
Directed by Martin Scorsese
After the success of Goodfellas, both with audiences and critics, it was reasonably sure Scorsese & author Nicholas Pileggi would collaborate again on something. Five years later, they told another true story of organized crime and its deleterious effects on people’s lives in Casino. Like Goodfellas, the movie focuses on an outsider to the Italian Cosa Nostra, a Jewish man with a remarkable ability to gamble and win big. Unlike Goodfellas, Casino feels more epic in scope. These people deal with amounts of money that are far beyond what Henry Hill ever got his hands on. The story is also more balanced with its three central cast members in a way that Goodfellas never really did.
Sam Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) has made a name for himself among the Midwest Mafia bosses for his gambling prowess. They see him as a great ally to set up in Las Vegas, running a casino and helping them skim some more money off the top. Rothstein agrees and heads out to the city in the desert in 1973 to run the Tangiers. After some time, Rothstein meets Ginger (Sharon Stone), a former sex worker who hustles her way through the casino getting high rollers to drop cash on her. Rothstein falls in love, and the two get married but with a storm on the horizon.
Meanwhile, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), Rothstein’s childhood friend, is sent out to protect the casino. However, Nicky becomes more interested in criminal ventures for himself and his crew, which leaves him at odds with Rothstein. These three figures become involved in an increasingly complicated relationship that threatens to tear them all apart.
Casino has all the trappings of Shakespearean tragedy. It often gets compared to Goodfellas, but other than the voice-over narration and organized crime elements, it is a very different story. The friendship between Rothstein and Nicky is just a powder keg waiting to explode. DeNiro plays Rothstein as very wary of his friend; he understands the value of having such a violent person in his pocket but is frightened by what could happen if Nicky isn’t reigned in. Nicky is hungry for power and wealth; he refuses to allow anyone to disrespect him and is an even more violent figure, in my opinion, than Tommy from Goodfellas. Goodfellas is about characters low on the rungs trying to make their way, while Casino is about what happens when they ascend and get real power.
Sharon Stone thoroughly steals the show as Ginger, one of Scorsese’s most tragic and frustrating characters. While Cathy Moriarity reacted very coldly to her abuse in Raging Bull and Lorraine Bracco waned back and forth between how she felt about her husband’s behavior, Stone explodes. The audience can clearly see that Rothstein is interested in possessing Ginger for how alluring she is, how she controls & manipulates people. When they are married and Ginger begins doing the same, Rothstein can’t handle it. Their relationship is the dynamite at the center of the whole story. Ginger goes to Nicky to run interference between her and Rothstein. Nicky is both manipulated by Ginger but also driven by his own ambitions of power. Ironically, the mob bosses meeting the backroom of a deli in Kansas City act as the divine element and eventually smite these parties for stepping out of line.
Scorsese has said Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street make up his Greed Trilogy, but I almost feel like The Irishman should be in there and/or The Wolf be removed. The Irishman complements these movies as it shows what happens to the lucky few who manage to live to old age. These are all quintessentially American movies, showing the blurred line between criminality and capitalism. These are characters who are so deliriously hungry for more of everything they are doomed. The irony is the system around them encourages this sort of behavior and then hypocritically punishes them when they reach critical mass.