Owning Mahowny Isn’t Really About Gambling, But Is An Important Lesson On Compulsion

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Sometimes, playing poker and constant gambling isn’t always a gateway to the criminal underworld. Sometimes, it can become a legitimate addiction, a true medical and psychological condition that ends up being more tragic than dark. Of course, too much of anything could eventually become a crime, but sometimes it’s something sympathetic. This is the story of the film Owning Mahowny, a simple, innocent-looking banker who happens to have a debilitating compulsion to keep gambling and enjoy the thrill of the deal.

A quick summary: in Owning Mahowny, a movie from 2003 that’s apparently based on a true story, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dan Mahowny, the aforementioned banker who also happens to be a compulsive gambling addict.

Set in 1982, Mahowny’s story sees him promoted to a big-time bank manager with access to a lot of the company’s money. Since he’s a compulsive gambler, he ends up using more and more of the bank’s funds (without being able to control himself). Eventually, he falls deeper and deeper into the hole until the authorities begin to investigate his actions. Other members of the movie’s cast include the recently-passed John Hurt, who plays the greedy manager of the casino Mahowny frequents.

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The story of Dan Mahowny is based on the real-life events that happened to bank clerk Brian Molony, who stole $10 million from his employers just to feed a debilitating gambling addiction. (It’s also the largest case of bank fraud in Canadian history. Truly astounding.) As a result, the film is really an examination of the stark reality of these psychological disorders instead of your usual thrilling caper involving poker. The movie is really a vehicle to portray how truly sad it is when people are caught in the throes of something that completely derails one’s life, all for the search of a feeling that can’t be had without betting on it all. It’s a cautionary tale for those weak-willed to stop while they’re ahead, before they continue deeper and deeper and turn into untoward degenerates living for the thrill of the deal.

And because Owning Mahowny is a film that focuses almost completely on the effects games like poker and houses like the casino have an effect on an ordinary man, it pretty much follows that it’s one of the better movies out there featuring those topics. It so happens that Philip Seymour Hoffman, a very good actor in the time he was still alive, is in there to perfectly capture the mania and dilemma that the Dan Mahowny character finds himself in. Hoffman truly understands the predicaments, both actual and psychological, the Mahowny character goes through, as though he himself has experienced the same problems Mahowny has had in his life. Hoffman is a skilled enough actor to act them all out and convey all the emotions (and also the lack thereof) that comes with being a compulsive gambler and caring about nothing except gambling. Even in the trailer, where the movie’s story is made only a little clear but jumbled enough to get you intrigued on what it’s about, Hoffman’s power already shines, conveying the problem in as few cuts as needed.

Related: Top 10 Poker Films That You Will Not Forget

It’s also for that same reason why many of those who saw Owning Mahowny, this author included, love the film and hold it in high regard. Hoffman doesn’t make it hard at all for people to see all of this. It’s presented to the audience in such a way that is really easy for them to understand; and if there’s anyone watching this movie who sees themselves exactly in the Mahowny character’s shoes, it’s a potent mirror held up to their faces and the faces of the demons living in their souls.

To Mahowny (and possibly the real-life version the character’s based on), gambling is nothing but a means to an end, something he does in order to continuously make himself feel alive, to make his soul stir.

Compulsive gamblers possibly feel the same way as Mahowny, and if watching this movie has helped anyone get over any problems they might have, then its production will have been worth it.

Owning Mahowny is one of those vehicles that won’t be overtly heralded because it wasn’t a movie that was meant to take the whole world by storm. It isn’t a blockbuster with big effects, or a caper with a star-studded ensemble cast that captures many moviegoers’ imaginations. It’s simply a well-told story of a man who is terribly, terribly human; only a relative few of those movies make the most money, but it’s usually the well-told stories that leave an impact and end up being better-quality films. It might not set your world on fire, but it could also be a story that you need to hear.

The good thing about Owning Mahowny, or rather the real person the character and story is based on, is that while one may be trapped by the power of a devastating compulsion, it’s never too late. The happy ending is that Brian Molony managed to (apparently) get over his gambling problem and ended up working as a consultant for firms looking to stop fraud. The movie doesn’t necessarily go into any turnarounds the Mahowny character might have found himself in, but that’s all right. It still shows that a disorder can’t stop anyone from being better and overcoming their problems.

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