As one of Martin Scorsese’s grand opuses of the 1990s, Casino holds grim truths up to the light so that we might all see them in their harshest shades. One of those truths is with regard to the often one-sided nature of being in love. After being sent to Las Vegas to run the fictional Tangiers Hotel (though the story is based on real life gangster Frank Rosenthal’s running of the Stardust, Fremont and Hacienda hotels), Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) encounters hustler/prostitute Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), based on Rosenthal’s wife, Geri McGee. In typical Scorsese fashion, a quintessential song, “Love Is Strange” by Mickey & Sylvia, is played the moment Sam lays eyes on Ginger as she causes a stir in the Tangiers by tossing chips from the table up into the air in a rage when her client doesn’t give her her share of the winnings she helped him get. From this moment forward, Frank is ruined, doomed to love a woman whose sole desire is material.
The famed opening to the film during which Sam gets into his car and it explodes as he falls against the backdrop of fire and a roulette wheel, prompting his narration of how this came to be, allows him to explain his succinct yet complex philosophy on love: “When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed that’s the kind of love I had.”
As he pursues Ginger with the allure of his rich lifestyle, it’s obvious that she doesn’t love him, and even tells him so when he proposes–most likely because she’s still attached to her pimp, Lester Diamond (James Woods). This does not deter Sam, who is convinced that the respect and, therefore, love she has for him will grow as they spend more time together. Unable to resist Sam’s promise of wealth, and that he’ll take care of her financially even if things don’t work out, she accepts the proposal. Sam locks it down by getting her to have his child right away.
Meanwhile, as the Tangiers continues to rake in an obscene amount of money, the mobsters from the East Coast send Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to serve as the muscle to keep the Vegas gangsters in line as well as skim money off the top to give to the mafiosos back home. As Nicky’s notoriety increases for being an untouchable not to be tangoed with, Sam begins to despise the fact that his name is always brought up when Nicky’s is mentioned in the news. Although the two grew up with one another, the resentment between them builds as each becomes larger and larger in his industry. This is what finally tips Nicky over the edge with regard to giving in to Ginger’s blatant sexual pursuits, as she has, by this time, grown to absolutely despise Sam. Ginger makes the mistake of thinking that allying herself with Nicky will keep her safe from Sam, even though the latter would never hurt her, his love far too strong for the hate to overtake him.
Going back to his belief that you have to “give [the person you love] the key to everything that’s yours,” Sam begins to regret doing just that by allowing Ginger sole access to a safe deposit box containing two million dollars. As their marriage accelerates in its deterioration and her addiction to alcohol and drugs becomes worse, all she wants is to divorce Sam so she can get her money, but she has no idea where he hides the key to the deposit box. It isn’t until she finds it that she finally takes the money and runs, putting the final cherry on top of Sam’s bitter sadness over never being able to make Ginger truly love him.
While Sam’s belief in true love and its potential to be returned if nurtured is certainly noble, its idealism is too great. When you give someone your heart who doesn’t really want it, you’re always going to be the one who gets wounded in the end–possibly by a car bomb.