Schrader’s newest film doesn’t shy away from unorthodox ideas
“What better way to die than on the job?” asked Paul Schrader on Facebook last May. A bit-player on the writer/director’s set had caught coronavirus, suspending production just as the finish line approached on the Mississippi-based shoot. Schrader clearly wasn’t happy. His habit of taking to social media to vent his outrage mimics that of his angst-ridden, diary-keeping protagonists — Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” for instance, or Ethan Hawke’s pastor Ernst Toller in “First Reformed.” “Write what you know,” as the old adage goes.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac), the titular card counter in Schrader’s “The Card Counter,” also keeps a diary. We’re privy to many of Tell’s inner monologues on the nature of blackjack, poker and his nihilistic worldview shaped by his years as a torturous interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison. He’s a man of ritual, shrouding motel room furniture in white sheets as he hops from casino to casino, eking out a repetitive living by skilfully — and illegally — turning the odds in his favor. A chance encounter with Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young and debt-ridden lone ranger, leads Tell on a dangerous collision course with Maj. Gordo (Willem Dafoe), Tell’s former supervisor at Abu Ghraib. All the while, a budding relationship with the moneyed backer La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) threatens to derail his controlled existence.
Schrader has plenty of fascinating ideas, and doesn’t shy away from unorthodox combinations. While the contrapuntal themes of climate change and loss of faith harmonized into a powerful narrative in “First Reformed,” “The Card Counter” fails to synthesize its two radically divergent storylines. Tell’s nightmares recalling his time in Iraq under Gordo give us some sense of his trauma, but the revenge subplot remains just that: a subplot, one that never makes a dent on the casino happenings. It’s an odd juxtaposition that just doesn’t pay off, with the movie flip-flopping its attention as one might while channel-surfing late on a Friday night.
It’s a shame since Oscar Isaac delivers a solid, endlessly watchable performance as the troubled Tell. The same cannot be said for Tiffany Haddish, however, whose comedic leanings hang over her performance like a Sword of Damocles, threatening at any moment to show themselves. For a film with such a dour atmosphere and serious tone, it should be asked whether her casting was the right decision. Tye Sheridan delivers most of his lines without conviction — perhaps another odd directorial choice by Schrader. At least the reliable Willem Dafoe gives a memorable, off-kilter turn as Gordo.
There are flourishes of brilliance: the ultra-fisheye lens through which we view Tell’s memories of Abu Ghraib turns them into something akin to a sickening VR experience, or a Google Street View tour of hell. Similarly engaging is a short scene in a garden of lights, with thousands of miniature bulbs surrounding Tell and La Linda on a midnight stroll as the camera floats up and above. “The Card Counter” is at its best when it breaks out of the rigid, unfeeling style Schrader has favored as of late — again he homages the “Transcendental Style” of his icons Bresson and Dreyer. His reverence for their films worked wonders in “First Reformed,” but he couldn’t repeat the miracle twice.
Thomas Lawson is a fourth year Cinema and Photography major who is working to watch every “a man in a room” film before graduating. They can be reached at email@example.com.