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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Owning Mahowny

IntroductionOwning Mahowny

Directed by Richard Kwietniowski and released in 2003, Owning Mahowny is a film about one man, called Dan Mahowny, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a position of financial power in a bank, who has a serious gambling problem. It is based on a book, by Gary Ross called Stung, about the true story of a Canadian banker, Brian Molony, who committed the largest single-handed bank fraud in the country’s history, embezzling approximately $10 million from his workplace. Molony served six years in prison and is now working as a financial consultant having stopped gambling completely. Hoffman met with him to discuss his role in preparation for the film. The film accurately portrays the signs and symptoms of pathological gambling and the serious consequences such a disorder can have on all aspects of a person’s life. It is particularly relevant at the current time with the proposed reclassification of problem gambling as an addiction called ‘gambling disorder’ alongside substance use disorders in the DSM-V classification, due to be published in 2013. The impact of this planned change in classification is discussed in the editorial of the February 2013 issue (Vol 37: 41-43) of The Psychiatrist, called Proposed changes for substance use and gambling disorders in DSM-5: impact on assessment and treatment in the UK (abstract).


The Film

The film opens with Mahowny in conversation with a psychiatrist in prison, stating that his ‘secret life’ is a lot less secret than anyone else’s at the moment. This sets the scene for the back story to be told and begins from the point that Mahowny, a successful banker, has just been promoted in the Canadian bank where he works. His girlfriend, played by Minnie Driver, also works as a clerk at the same bank and soon shows that she is frustrated by her shy, workaholic boyfriend, who never seems to have enough time for their relationship. The viewer’s opinion of Mahowny is immediately changed when two ‘bookies’ turn up at Mahowny’s office asking him to pay the money that he owes them or violence will ensue. As he doesn’t have the money himself, he realises that he can use some funds from a client account to pay these debts, initially planning to repay the unofficial loan. However, once he has successfully defrauded the bank and realises that he can get away with it easily, he becomes locked into a cycle of taking greater sums of money from the bank to place ever larger bets with his ‘bookies’. He also begins to travel regularly to a casino in Atlantic City to play the tables, lying to his long-suffering girlfriend in the process. She slowly comes to understand the nature of his problem. The unscrupulous casino boss in Atlantic City, played by John Hurt, becomes fascinated by the unglamorous Mahowny and soon realises that he can make a lot of money from him as Mahowny’s gambling problem becomes evident. It is in the scenes at the casino that the viewer shares Mahowny’s compulsion to place bets without regard to the consequences of losing huge sums of money. Any attempt by his girlfriend to make Mahowny acknowledge his problem is met with complete denial by him. Although she has no idea of the extent of his financial difficulties, she alone understands the gravity of his situation but decides to stick by him regardless of this. The final unravelling occurs as the police investigate the ‘bookies’, who have continued to place bets for Mahowny, finally leading them to Mahowny himself.

The viewer is finally returned to the conversation between Mahowny and the psychiatrist in prison. Mahowny is asked to rate the thrill he got from gambling on a scale of one to a hundred. He answers with ‘a hundred’ and then says that the biggest thrill he has had outside of gambling would score twenty on that same scale. Mahowny goes on to acknowledge that he must now accept a maximum of twenty out of a hundred for excitement in his future life and ends by saying “twenty’s OK”.


Relevance to the field of Mental Health

As gambling is a common and accepted leisure activity in many societies, and with an increasing number of avenues now open to gambling on the Internet, it is likely that this problem will increase. It is timely to suggest that doctors, and in particular psychiatrists, may need to be more aware of this important public health issue. As it is also associated with significant psychiatric comorbidity and often has a negative impact on family and society it is important that health professionals are confident about the detection, diagnosis and management of pathological gambling. Owning Mahowny provides a very good portrait of how problem gambling may present in an individual who appears to be trustworthy and balanced in his social and working life, making detection of the problem more difficult. The film demonstrates very well the addictive nature of Mahowny’s gambling at the expense of everything else in his life, resulting in a downward spiral of self-destruction. Owning Mahowny also demonstrates how vulnerable an individual can become whilst in the grip of this addiction as it shows the casino owner ‘taking Mahowny for all he has got’. In the real life case, the casino was ordered to close for a day by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission (something previously unheard of) for giving Molony preferential treatment and encouraging him to gamble with very large sums of money without seeking to find out their source.

For a good introduction to the topic of pathological gambling, there is an excellent article by S. George and V. Murali, published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2005) 11: 450-456, called Pathological gambling: an overview of assessment and treatment, which is freely available. A reading of this article alongside a viewing of the film would provide a very good understanding of this disorder. In an editorial in The Psychiatrist (2013), 37, 1-3, entitled Problem gambling: what can psychiatrists do?, S George, H Bowden-Jones, J Orford and N Petry discuss how psychiatrists can screen for the disorder and what interventions psychiatrists can offer once they have made a diagnosis (abstract). An even more recent article in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2013) 19: 23-29, by S. George, O Ijeoma and H. Bowden-Jones (abstract) entitled Gamblers Anonymous: overlooked and underused?, offers some detail about Gamblers Anonymous as a treatment option, using the twelve steps approach common to Alcoholics Anonymous. The authors note that this treatment can work very well for some individuals and is also compatible with the use of CBT for gambling addiction.


I would highly recommend this film to all of those working in the field of mental health wanting to gain a greater understanding of problem gambling.

• More information about Owning Mahowny can be found at IMDB, as can a short trailer.

Owning Mahowny can be purchased at

• Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida


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About this blog


Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.