Over the last three years or so, I’ve really grown to love the hell out of Academy Award nominee (God, that feels good) Paul Schrader. Not just as a filmmaker (see: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Blue Collar, Light Sleeper, Auto Focus, Affliction, etc) and writer (the aforementioned films, and Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) but as a person (his Facebook page is so wildly off the cuff, I can’t help but admire him further). It was all really triggered though with his last film, First Reformed, which not only topped my list of the best films of 2018, but also made it onto my list of the best films of the decade. So yeah, I’m something of a fan, and obviously the hype for his latest film, The Card Counter, was real.
Schrader is a master of depicting men with haunted souls, whether they’re being haunted towards madness or they simply can’t get a grip on themselves. In that sense, The Card Counter is very Schrader. The film is a character study, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story; it’s just that the character happens to be the major aspect of the story. Also on the major Schrader aspect side of things, he even borrows from First Reformed in that our hero, the narrator, writes at a desk with a drink beside him. Perhaps a stretch, considering most of his films have voiceover, but this image is literally taken from that film. The film won’t be for everyone, in that it builds slowly. Though for yours truly, the film was compelling, atmospheric, impeccably acted, and one that will linger in the mind for a while. Schrader is back, baby.
Oscar Isaac is marvelous, in a performance that isn’t particularly showy, as William Tell (not his real name, but it’s pretty close to his real name), a lonely card player who essentially wanders through life gambling. He can afford to do so because he’s really good at it, from studying card counting while in prison. One odd touch to William is that in every hotel he stays in, he wraps the entire room (lamp, desk, nightstand, etc.) in cloth sheets and rope. One evening while roaming a casino, he comes across La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, an inspired casting choice), who basically invests money in Poker players while they’re on tour. She knows of William’s expertise and pushes him to do it, but he rides alone.
Also by wandering the casino, he happens to stumble upon a lecture being given by one Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). He stops to listen to it, then gets up abruptly, but is stopped by the young fella he has been sat next to. He introduces himself as Cirk (“Kirk, with a C”) and points out that the two of them clearly know this Gordo fella, and gives William his number. William takes him up on this, to find out that Cirk’s family has gone through an enormous tragedy, compliments of Gordo. We also see William’s connection to Gordo, in that they were both guards at Guantanamo Bay circa 2003, and unnecessarily tortured inmates for a living (these sequences are filmed through a fish-eye lens that is rather unsettling, as if the content wasn’t unsettling). Cirk wants Gordo’s blood, but William offers to take Cirk on a poker tour with him, and he takes La Linda up on her offer. Is William, who also is less than fond of Gordo, out for blood too? Or is he trying to place Cirk on the right path?
One thing that’ll probably frustrate people about The Card Counter is that it isn’t tremendously exciting. We have become so accustomed to watching films with explosions that a movie like this simply won’t do for everyone. It is also a film where, much of the time, it’s difficult to tell just where Schrader is taking this story, and why he is taking it there. Truth be told, I wasn’t really sure which direction this film was going in much of the time, but that’s also kind of the beauty of it. If you’re aware of Schrader’s work and how dark things can get, The Card Counter gives you what you expect, then it doesn’t, then it does, but not in the way you’d expect it.
Isaac is ideal casting for a Schrader vehicle. As handsome as the man may be, he also has these eyes that can truly stare into your soul. He gets a couple of moments where he can be truly frightening, but otherwise, Isaac and Schrader don’t resort to big Oscar moments. It’s all pretty subtle. As is the work from Haddish and Sheridan, who have never been better. These three certainly seem like an unlikely trio, and they are, yet in Schrader’s hands, they all work wonders. I adore a scene where William and La Linda go to this park filled with Christmas lights- it’s a beaut. You got to love the mood and the atmosphere of this film too. Guantanamo scenes aside, Schrader manages to capture casino life through the editing and score that truly give off the vibe he’s trying to achieve. It works splendidly.
The film isn’t as much a poker movie as it is a film about the past. It’s about how the past doesn’t have to define you, but it’ll always be there. I can’t say I relate to these people, necessarily, but this concept is one that rings true. I have my regrets and they always linger, but over the last year, I think I’ve become something of a success- not financially, but personally. You either hold onto the past, or you march forward, but Schrader’s film is far less corny than that. Having said all of this, where First Reformed was a film about despair, The Card Counter feels a little more hopeful. Don’t get me wrong, there’s despair to share here, too.
If you couldn’t tell, First Reformed was, as I see it, a masterpiece. The Card Counter isn’t quite, but maybe with time, it could be. Schrader has quite the deck stacked here and he has so many good cards in his favor that you have to sit and wonder if they all connect as well as they appear. It is definitely one that you have to sit on for a while. In any case, the man is a terrific filmmaker and perhaps an even better storyteller, and what will probably be a snoozer to some is a film that I’m eager to revisit as soon as possible. At 75, Paul Schrader has still got it.