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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

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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One of the great movies. Charles Bronson, great, Charles Bronson. Great movies. Today you can’t make that movie because it’s not politically correct, right? It’s not politically correct. But could you imagine with Trump? Somebody says, oh, all these big monsters aren’t around he’s easy pickings and then shoot.”
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