We first meet Jack Nicholson’s David Staebler inside a limitless black space, his unreadable half-lit expression drawling a soft detail to seemingly no one about the time he and his brother became unwitting accomplices in their grandfather’s death. We’ve nothing to engage except his face and diatribe. His telling of the tale is engrossing, delivered with precedence on tense storytelling over any sort of emotional or complicit guilt. There’s no immediate context given as to where or why its being shared, the tale drawn out to provoke audience preclusions over this charismatically dark individual.
The key light turns a shade of red and the frame recedes to finally reveal David as a late night jockey within a radio booth. He’s either doing his job properly, indulging his disturbed memory bank, or both. The effect is not unlike receiving a suspect anecdote from an acquaintance who then appeases any uneasiness with the usual defence of harmless jesting. The judgement is already placed: David Staebler is the sort of man one keeps in the corner of their eye, just to check if he’s up to no good.
Director Bob Rafelson wants us to interrogate the nature of this man, to at the very worst draw rash conclusions within the first five minutes of the picture. David duly remains an impenetrable prospect; as the film opens up – from rooms to staircases to beaches – he’s captured stalking silently (there’s no non-diegetic music) through a succession of dingy corridors, the camera sharing our hesitance in approaching him too closely. He’s a singular presence, a lone wolf moving through increasingly narrow visual lines, shrinking as he departs further from the camera’s gaze. He’s mostly framed in long or mid-shots – as are the other characters – so Rafelson can capture and emphasise the characteristically unremarkable architecture of Atlantic City.
After all, the city is the film’s biggest character, and as a visitor David is its temporary captive. The film’s title, The King of Marvin Gardens, references the Atlantic City version of the Monopoly board, a game that partly inspires David’s cocksure brother Jason (Bruce Dern) to embark on an impossible real estate scam to claim ownership of his immediate environment.
Jason bangs a tin drum against the bars of his police cell on the instance we’re introduced to him. Here’s a man who, unlike his brother, turns his surroundings into an abode of his own imagining. He’s so convinced of his wild ambitions that he can not only tell himself that his hotel suite is a king’s palace, but also persuade his beauty queen squeeze Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and her ‘package deal’ daughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). Jason has a Plan A, B, C and D; whatever happens, he’s at the very least a winner of something.
In Bob Rafelson’s previous film Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson played Robert Dupea, a young blue-collar worker denying his innate musical ability, consigned to a low ambition, mired in a self-hatred that reached its apex upon a visit to his family on Pugent Sound. Dupea was a bipolar anomaly, simultaneously depleted and aggressively energised. In The King of Marvin Gardens, Rafelson has applied aspects of Dupea’s persona across two distinct brothers: David is withdrawn, introverted and self-doubting (he tells his dictaphone that his life is ‘unworthy’, and tragedy is in the Top 40); Jason is the flamboyant loudmouth, glaring at Sally with the same degree of contempt and indifference as Dupea afforded his woman in Five Easy Pieces.
Jason’s desired ownership of a city that won’t easily fall under his fist is a strange proposition; Atlantic City, framed in all its decaying, dilapidated fullness, resembles a neglected ghost town, a bleak landscape at the end of the 70s era if not the world, in which the sands of the beach remain consistently unoccupied, forever grey and never golden. The entire film is designedly unattractive.
Still, Jason is vehemently adamant that he is the rightful ruler of this kingdom. It ends with the city, though it begins with the smaller stakes. “You told me you owned the goddamn Traymore Hotel!” screams Sally petulantly, to which Jason replies: “I tried to explain to you, the Traymore Hotel was in the exploratory stage.” What Sally fails to realise is that she too is little more than one stage; an object to comfort Jason as he ascends the rungs of the ladder. Confiding in David, he explains, “The girls… they’ll be as much yours as they are mine.”
Does Jason also own David to a degree? Considering their contrasting dispositions, one imagines that had the two encountered each other as strangers, the introverted individual would yield to the sheer force of will exhibited by the extrovert. But this is an essential, mandatory family obligation. Just as Jessica is dragged along to share her mother’s whorish lifestyle, so too is David an unwilling accomplice in a charade far unbecoming of him. Leading by bad example albeit helpless to refuse, Jessica has succumbed to her circumstances. She asks David, “Do you believe you’re the only one who’s entitled to be selfish?”
What Rafelson investigates – more than the self-evident passing of the corroded 70s landscape into a new casino America – is the sometimes poisonously affecting family bond that, in the wrong context, can pull us into obligations of great damage to our established character. Relationships in general are assumed to be the societal norm, though for some people like David solitude is a preference. Jessica has become convinced of what’s good for her, but David knows better and his rational thought comes into sharp conflict with Jason’s unrestrained fantasies of dominance. “You’re not the king of me!” Jason cries; between two men, one requires dominion over the other.
David is brought in to help his brother – following three years without contact – only to be attacked for his reluctance to share Jason’s idealised perspective, though it’s Jason who’s truly at fault for failing to realise the apathy that grips his brother. Sally deteriorates at a more rapid pace throughout the film; hers is a violent mental setback, a paranoid obsession over her daughter’s beauty – another incompatible pairing – that sends her to the beach to bury her makeup and announce: “May I greet the morning as I am, with my own naked face.” Jason doesn’t hear her, or at least not as she intends. Nor does he ever hear David.
“In the fun house, how do you know who’s really crazy?” says David at the close of the film. It’s the film’s ending statement, a summation of all that’s occurred within the apocalyptic deluge of Atlantic City. He and Jason both see each other as unreasonable, with no attainable compromise arising between them. Depression is loaded with stigma and is therefore a difficult subject to broach. It renders close relationships – even those where one is expected to know, inside out, the person they claim to love – a hard fought battle. Nonessential relationships can change over time, resurrect or simply cease to exist. But what of the bond between David and Jason, of the unbreakable biological chain calling them back to one another despite their irrefutable differences? Who’s really crazy? Neither will care to admit it.