Hell is Real, and It’s Las Vegas in “Casino”

Casino Robert De Niro & Joe Pesci in Casino (Universal Pictures)

One of Martin Scorsese’s more underrated gangster dramas depicts Sin City as a place where dreams & nightmares are one.

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective of the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Martin Scorsese and gangster movies go hand-in-hand like peanut butter and jelly, or Donald Trump and fascism. What exactly makes Casino stand out? Well, for one thing, the lead characters are far more in the public eye compared to the individuals seen in, say, Goodfellas. Usually gangsters in movies like to keep a low-profile away from the public eye, whereas the protagonist of Casino, gangster Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), ends up hosting a TV show. Rothstein can’t get enough of the spotlight that so many movie gangsters try to avoid.

There’s also the isolation aspect woven into setting Casino in Las Vegas. Many gangster movies, like Goodfellas, or non-Scorsese films like Black Mass, illustrate how the lead gangsters go about living in normal society when they’re not breaking necks. They go to church, they go to the grocery store, they’re typically a part of the local community. As early narration makes clear, though, Las Vegas is a city of lights surrounded by a seemingly endless desert. Out here, the characters of Casino, separated from typical reality to such a profound degree, can’t help but get wrapped up in the glitz and glamour of this city. Casino’s version of Las Vegas and its inhabitants might as well be on another planet.

This idea of Las Vegas being a kind of haven away from a routine existence runs under the entire story, which follows the rise and fall of Ace Rothstein, who’s sent by Chicago mobsters to oversee a casino that supplies them with regular stacks of cash. A routine assignment soon becomes the lifeblood of Rothstein, as he fully immerses himself in the world of running the finest casino in all of Las Vegas. Soon joining him is his childhood best friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), a violent individual who is tantalized by the prospect of getting a fresh start in the limitless promises found in the desert. He soon adversely impacts Rothstein’s fortunes, while Rothstein’s abusive and possessive relationship with his wife, Ginger (Sharon Stone), ends up creating things further.

Casino does stumble a bit, mostly in its unnecessary voiceover narration, and the constant abuse lobbed at Ginger. Where the film excels, however, is in its depiction of how Vegas being removed from the world allows the lead characters to indulge in their vices. There are no heroes here to balance out the villains–in Casino’s vision of Las Vegas, everyone is scummy to one degree or another. Even law enforcement determined to put a stop to Rothstein’s activities do it mostly out of spite and resentment for his refusing to hire their relatives.

The omnipresent immorality instills a sense of inevitable tragedy into Casino because, really, with all these conniving people working overtime to backstab each other, how could things not end badly?

Rampant immorality is nothing new for a Scorsese gangster movie, but in the context of Casino, emphasizing on wall-to-wall corruption feels especially important. These Vegas denizens are an extension of the land they inhabit. Just as Rothstein’s casino is designed to eventually screw over its patrons, so too is Las Vegas seemingly determined to destroy all who try and conquer it. Of course there’s no good people here to contrast the gangsters, this version of Las Vegas can’t sustain such individuals. Such a pronounced level of amoral people means there’s nobody you can trust, there’s nobody these people can actually connect to, and everyone’s as phony as a tacky piece of Vegas signage. 

The omnipresent immorality instills a sense of inevitable tragedy into Casino because, really, with all these conniving people working overtime to backstab each other, how could things not end badly? This element of inescapable tragedy is baked into Casino right from its opening scene, which depicts Rothstein falling prey to a car bomb. In this introductory sequence, it’s obvious that all this debauchery can lead to nowhere but a horrific end, and that lends a grim cloud to the entire motion picture.

This somber tone is especially prominent in the subplot dedicated to following former best buddies Rothstein and Santoro experiencing a gradual falling out that sees them betraying one another in a myriad of ways. Las Vegas is a place is like no other on planet Earth–rife with possibilities, but it’s also one that can destroy those who think they can control it. It’s a grim idea brought to riveting life under the direction of Martin Scorsese and it’s such a specifically detailed crucial story element that allows Casino to feel like its own creation in the canon of gangster cinema.

Casino Trailer:

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!