This review originally ran on Comics Bulletin.
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2011's Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians directed by Bryan Storkel.
Elkin: Gambling is the Devil's playground, right? The path to hell is paved with playing cards, and Satan is always raising the stakes. A true Christian would never succumb to the vice of gambling and the depravity of the casino.
Or would he or she?
Can you make your livelihood playing blackjack and still be a Christian?
Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians is a documentary that explores this very question in an immersive, engaging and thought-provoking manner that raises questions of faith, fortune and fidelity. The film follows a group of young Evangelical Christians, pastors, congregants and believers, who banded together as part of a blackjack team that crisscrossed America using the mathematical advantage that card-counting provides to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars from casinos. In a three-year period, the film examines how they are able to reconcile their livelihood with their faith, as well as explore the dynamics of the fraternity this business venture engendered and relied upon for its success.
Sacks: Last time we talked about a documentary that I found captivating but which you found a bit uninteresting. This time the positions are reversed. Are we talking about my taking revenge against you, Elkin, a fruit that tastes very sweet or are we talking a legitimate difference of opinion? I think the truth is the latter.
I'm a little biased about this documentary because I first heard the story of the Holy Rollers on the great radio show This American Life, where the story of the group was told pretty fully in a crisp 18 minutes filled with humor and insight. Compared to the master storytelling skills of the great Ira Glass, any documentary would have to feel bloated – and I don't feel like I got much more insight into the world of the evangelists-turned-gamblers than I did in the crisp radio segment.
I think part of that feeling results from the fact that the men at the heart of this film are so damn ordinary, at least on the surface. Ben and Brad, our two protagonists, are so matter-of-fact about the gambling business that it somehow doesn't feel unusual. Their peace with their bizarre endeavor gives the movie less of an internal conflict than might have worked well for the movie. There was no intensity and precious little drama in the movie so that made it not very compelling for me.
There's one story in both the movie and radio show about a gambler who everybody believes is stealing money that seems emblematic of the problems I had. In the radio show the man who steals the money is tightly profiled and we can clearly understand how profoundly upsetting the incident is for the Holy Rollers, but in the movie the whole thing is treated as a passing incident, a minor moment that the team simply moves past.
I also felt like the movie didn't spend enough time talking about the craziness of a church group funding itself through the casino gambling. In other words, it felt to me like the movie was burying its lede. But do you agree with me, Elkin?
Elkin: No. No, I don't. I wonder if you would have felt the same way about the movie had you not heard the radio broadcast first? Has this bit of a prior experience with this story tempered your enjoyment of the film – is your objectivity compromised by your subjectivity? Have you lost faith? What are the stakes?
Like I said, what I really enjoyed about this documentary was the humanness of it. You found Ben and Brad to be “so damn ordinary,” “so matter-of-fact” – it is exactly this that I found fascinating. The ability of the human mind to compartmentalize and/or to rationalize the most seemingly disparate entities or thoughts is utterly brilliant. These guys are treading the thin line of contradiction, and yet they are so easily able to make it work, to paint it in a brilliant light, to stride forth into their world with a sense of purpose and righteousness.
But then there were other members of the group for whom such rationalizations couldn’t be sustained. And the film lets their crises of consciousness fully play out. For me, each moment of the film was an examination of the choices people make and the justifications they concoct. Faith is an abstract. Gambling is a concrete. Community bridges the gap between these two things. When faith wavers so does community. When the gambling goes south, the community reels.
This was a business venture. This was an act of faith. This was an exercise in community building. This was an examination of our humanity. I think you were looking at the film through rose colored (Ira) glasses, Sacks, and perhaps that made you miss the larger picture.
Sacks: Yeah, I gotta admit that my glasses are filled with (Ira) glass – great turn of phrase there, my probing pal! And yeah I did kind of brush past the really interesting philosophical points that are at the heart of this movie.
This kind of gets to the heart of the two general types of documentaries that we've reviewed recently in this column. Someone smarter than me probably has better terms for this than I do, but I'll call these "observational" and "shaped" documentaries. "Shaped" documentaries, like Senna, The Two Escobars and The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, are edited to add drama and context to the story they provide. They are shaped by the documentarian to tell a story based on facts. "Observational" documentaries, like Holy Rollers and Gnarr are much less shaped by the documentarian and simply chronicle events as they happen.
Okay, there may be more than two types, I dunno, this is an idea I'm playing with, but anyway I'm wondering if my reaction to this doc is in some ways a reflection of the fact that I've heard this story told both as an "observational" and "shaped" documentary. After I've heard this story wrapped up in a very clever and smart little bow, did the insights and philosophical points made on the radio fight in my mind with the insights and philosophical points made in the documentary? Because no matter how you approach this story, it really is quite fascinating.
There are a whole slew of inherent contradictions in the idea of religious men working to make money gambling in casinos, and it's clear that the men felt those contradictions, too. I think the radio show quotes one of the gamblers who talks about how he was comped amazing rooms in Vegas and offered endless alcohol, rich food and hookers – only to end up eating a club sandwich and praying for hours.
It's right there that the reality and fantasy of this life collide, where the abstract and the real hit each other with thunderous power. It's downright thrilling to be able to make money hand over fist, to get on a winning streak that feels like it will be endless. And it's equally depressing to find yourself down tens of thousands of dollars in one night. Which streak would cause more of a loss of faith? How can you sustain your belief in something good and great when your life is all about trying to control random chance?
The movie follows these men and their lives and, as you say, doesn't draw any conclusions about their lives. We get to watch their awkward justifications and strange reasoning, but we're never asked to draw a side on these issues. Which is absolutely to the documentary's credit. But it also causes the doc to lose a bit of focus for me. Maybe I was anxious for these insights to be packaged more succinctly for me. Or maybe I just lost my interest at some point with people who seemed so content living with the inherent contradictions between the ways they made their money and the ways that they showed their religious fervor?
Uh, oh, they say doubt is the enemy of faith and here I am filled with doubt about my feelings. Help me, brother Elkin!
Elkin: Unwavering faith frightens me because without the idea of questioning the concepts behind one's faith, it's no longer faith. Is it dogma at that point? For me, the very concept of faith is inseparable from questioning. A matter of fact, without questioning I don't think there can be faith.
So it is good that you are wavering, Sacks. It means you are thinking. It shows that you care about what you believe. And this was what I liked about Holy Rollers. These were people of faith, of strong conviction, but they also were filled with doubt and were constantly examining their thinking as they journeyed.
And, like I said before, it was not just their religious faith that they had to examine, it was also their faith in themselves and their faith in others. I believe that it is only through this kind of questioning that we grow as individuals and we grow as a community. Dogma leads to rigidness and is the antagonist to change. The examined life allows for growth.
I think this is ultimately the lesson of Holy Rollers. Sure it's an interesting documentary about card counting and this group of people – but at its heart it is a film about faith.
It's hard to make the leap into faith. It flies in the face of our need to make a clear, rational sense of the world. But it is faith – faith in ourselves and our community – that will lead us into new worlds of thought and expression.
Before this river becomes an ocean, Sacks, before you throw my heart back on the floor, reconsider my foolish notion that Holy Rollers is, all things being equal, a wonderful documentary.
Sacks: I have faith in you, brother Elkin, that you do indeed love this documentary and I agree that the themes it brings up are interesting and worth probing. And what makes this doc more compelling than most is the sharp division it brings between faith and the real world, between a personal belief system and the day-to-day grind of trying to live up to that belief system.
It's that tension – between the spiritual, religious side and the grounded, real-world side, that gives Holy Rollers much of its power. We do indeed see the tensions in the people that are shown in this movie, and get a sense of how truly faith-driven men can reconcile that faith with their skills and needs to get by in the day-to-day world.
You're right as well that the struggle for faith isn't just between their internal belief system and the external world; it's also between their belief systems and those of the others in their group. There's a strong emphasis put on the community of gamblers, on the fact that they could all trust each other and that each person's internal compass would help determine their good behavior.
Can you live your life trusting other peoples' inner compasses? Are there limits to how much you can trust someone, even a religious person trusting another religious person? And how is your internal compass compromised when you're forced to make decisions that strike right at the heart of who you are? These are all interesting questions that this documentary brings up but which ultimately don't get probed in enough depth for me to really feel satisfied with their presentation. A little more shaping would have helped these themes be more tightly focused.
I thought the vérité style, which let the subjects of this film tell their story without editorial interference, helped make the drama in Holy Rollers more real, more prosaic, more in keeping with the day to day lives that we all live than the packaged radio story. The banality of the characters' surroundings made the story somehow universal – anyone viewing this film could imagine themselves in the shoes of these men, making these complicated moral choices and sometimes choosing to do what in retrospect may be the wrong thing.
But in the end you and I disagree somewhat on this doc. I thought it brought up some intriguing themes, but that the format of the film worked against its ultimate success. But I have faith that we'll soon find another documentary that will make us both happy without compromising our principles, Elkin!
Elkin: Amen, brother Sacks. Can I get a hallelujah?
Trailer for the film:
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