Rooted in the local color of Chicago’s dive bars and bowling alleys, Win It All recites its fiction without fabrication, amassing authenticity from its environment and the instincts of its troupe of actors. Where most accounts of ludomania glorify addiction by transporting it to an exotic locale, Joe Swanberg hones in on the triggers next door, ensconcing Eddie (Jake Johnson) in the foggy lowlights of back alley poker halls and racetracks, reflecting his impulsivity in red-hued glare and toppling piles of mottled chips. The ambience is appropriate, but never gratuitous, leaving room for a tale imbued with humor and heart, engrossed by a man willing to wager on happiness, instead of revel in self-perpetuated defeat.
Forfeiting adult routine in the name of momentary exhilaration, Eddie shuns the family landscaping business in favor of nocturnal games of chance, subsisting solely on valet parking tips, scrounged egg sandwiches and musings of the stakes to come. By a twist of fate, a shady associate entrusts him with a duffel bag before a six-month prison bid, promising a windfall of cash if the sack’s contents are left untouched during his incarceration. Envisioning a bounty of loot beneath the zipper, Eddie nervously stashes the tote in an unkempt closet, his face wriggling between fear and elation as ascending drum roll complements his compulsive urges and his hands wrestle to unlatch the zipper’s threads.
Quantifying Eddie’s bipolar shifts in temperament with a tangible number, Joe Swanberg employs an on-screen ticker* that flashes the bag’s remaining balance with each unsolicited cash advance and inevitable loss. The tension garnered by revealing excised portions of the narrative through brisk edits and a fluctuating monetary value draws us closer to the frenzied mindset of the addict, paralleling our voyeuristic suspense to the fleeting glory and enduring guilt of the chronic cardsharp.
Utilizing this formal technique to conjure intimacy and empathy, Swanberg furnishes equal time to Eddie’s small victories, treating passages of tenderness and fortitudinous labor as a symbolic currency that rivals cash. Jake Johnson recognizes the levity beneath the sober implications of their story and endows the lead role with enough charm to unveil the victor beneath the shroud of dependency. His half-joked sincerity bears the instinctual adlibbing that animates Joe Swanberg’s writing and, like Robert Altman before him, Swanberg knows how to coax his performers into the relaxed rhythm of real conversation, asking them to shade in fantasy with the pigment of bonafide experience.
Win It All (Netflix, 2017)
Directed by Joe Swanberg
Written by Jake Johnson and Joe Swanberg
Photographed by Eon Mora
*My wife’s term for the on-screen account balance. Thanks for the help, honey!