Dir. Richard Kwietniowski. Can-UK. 2003. 107mins.

A low-key character study of an extraordinary man, Owning Mahowny tells the true story of a nebbish Canadian bank employee who embezzled millions from his employers to feed his addiction to gambling. Directed with austerity by Richard Kwietniowski and played by the riveting Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film finds an almost unbearable tension in a man who seems barely alive. But that same austerity will limit its appeal and dampen word-of-mouth, particularly among audiences who come expecting some casino pizzazz.

Dan Mahowny is a mid-level loan officer who has a "financial problem, not a gambling problem." Worse, his bookie is refusing to take his bets until he pays off his debts. In desperation, he creates a fictitious client, borrows real money and jets off to Atlantic City for the weekend. In true addict fashion he comes back to earth as the table closes with all his money gone. A few hours later he is back in his Toronto office, explaining his absence to his girlfriend (Driver) and arranging his next weekend.

From the vantage of his security cameras, the casino boss Foss (Hurt) views Mahowny like a deep-sea fisherman confronted with a new kind of catch. He plays out the line, trying every kind of bait, from suites to sweets of the female persuasion. But this dumpy Canadian in the cheap suit is no Jekyll and Hyde unleashing demons in sin city. As Foss remarks while staring at the monitors: "No sex, no liquor, no drugs. I love him."

Hoffman is a miracle of containment, capturing a joyless personality who is a workaholic at work and at the tables. Hurt, who worked with Kwietniowski in the director's previous film, Love And Death On Long Island, plays his part with blood-thirsty fascination. Similarly, Maury Chaykin, as Mahowny's bookie, is flummoxed by the contradiction of his client's insatiable appetite and impassive face. The two roles enhance that of Mahowny.

Unfortunately, the character of Mahowny's girlfriend has the opposite effect. It is hard to believe anyone would find this man loveable even if he were not expending his entire being in the pursuit of an addiction. She just keeps taking it and taking it. The flaw is in the character, not Driver's performance. The minimalist production design is also as issue: a more vivid casino atmosphere would have cast Mahowny in sharper relief. Otherwise, period details of 1980s Toronto are spot-on - something of a first for a city that rarely plays itself.

Initially, Kwietniowski deals the cards with a steady hand, showing the audience the faces of complicity: Mahowny's oblivious employers, the corner-cutting auditors, the greedy casino that watches a man wager three times his yearly salary on a single-hand of black jack. It would be immoral, says Foss, "Only if we know what we don't."

The downward spiral is nicely played, with a few close calls to keep Mahowny and the audience on their toes. Every time he thinks he is going to get caught , he ducks and brazens through; the near-misses only serve to embolden him. But the denouement is weakened by some amateurish police procedure, breaking the tension with scenes of coffee-and-doughnuts ineptitude. It is what keeps a good film from being great.

Prod co: Alliance Atlantis, Natural Nylon
Int'l sales:
Alliance Atlantis
US dist:
Sony Pictures Classics
Andras Hamori, Seaton McLean, Alessandro Camon
Maurice Chauvet
Oliver Curtis
Prod des:
Taavo Soodor
Mike Munn
The Insects, Richard Grassby-Lewis
Main cast:
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Maury Chaykin, John Hurt