By Elias Savada.
Some of you may be screaming at Schrader for his obsession with tormented souls in slow-burning, character-driven, and fiercely impulsive dramas. But if anyone’s going to tackle the style, I want him driving the car. And Isaac is his poker face chauffeur in The Card Counter.”
In his near-half-century film career spanning 18 features (directing) and a bunch of others as a writer or co-writer – including four Martin Scorsese films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead), it’s understandable why Paul Schrader’s latest entry bears Scorsese’s name atop it as an executive producer and sole presenter. The Card Counter harkens back to their first collaboration back in the mid-1970s, and has a similar solitary and morally ambiguous character at its core. Oscar Isaac’s somber, hard-edged William Tell is a tormented distant cousin to over-the-edge Travis Bickle, and to other characters in the Schrader corral, most recently the despair-driven Reverend Ernst Toller (from First Reformed, Schrader’s 2017 Oscar-nominated for best original screenplay). Tell is more enlightened, although his fragile condition balances along a narrow razor’s edge. There are moments in this latest of the writer-director’s numerous cinematic journeys down the path of self-destruction that deeply reflect on dark moments in his other films. What goes around, comes around (again).
There’s a quiet, subdued disgrace at the heart of this determinedly fixated work, and it’s led by Isaac’s piercing performance as a man condemned by his own actions during the torturous misadventures as part of the “interrogations” at the Abu Ghraib prison. It has haunted his life since, even if most of that time he’d been stuck in a military prison. Rehabilitation wasn’t part of his routine, but picking a fight so he could get his own ass whomped certainly was. If he can’t self-flagellate, have someone else do the job. In his spare time he learned cards. And hence the title of the film.
Upon his release from a penitentiary after nearly a decade, Tell’s broken soul is set adrift in small town casinos, where his talents are soon appreciated by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who manages a stable of poker players, with some unseen high spenders bankrolling her horses. At first Tell (yes, it’s a fascinating nom-de-plume) scoffs at the offer, but after he makes an awkward connection with high school drop-out Cirk – as in “Kirk with a C” (Tye Sheridan) – a too-eager-to-be-trusted son of one of his fellow Iraqi torturers (this one took it back home and infected his family before killing himself), he decides that the money would help mentor the gangly teenager. Like the boy’s name, something seems to be slightly off in the young lad’s lost puppy tale.
Which brings me to Willem Dafoe, who has now appeared in seven of the director’s film since 1992’s Light Sleeper, although they met when Scorsese was filming The Last Temptation of Christ. In The Card Counter, his role is big, even if his screen time is quite small. He is the sadistic veteran, Major John Gordo, unrepentant and unpunished for his odious crimes, retired in a nice suburban home in “Rockville,” Virginia, living high off speaking gigs as a security consultant. That pisses off Tell and his young apprentice, but they seem to put their hatred on hold, so Gordo is cast adrift for most of the film.
Haddish, better known for her outlandish comedies and potty-mouth roles (though showing her dramatic range in Netflix’s Self-Made), apparently took her mostly observatory role here because she’s a fan of Schrader’s 1980 remake of Val Lewton’s Cat People, filmed in New Orleans. (The Card Counter was shot in Biloxi, Mississippi.) He liked her in Girls’ Trip (didn’t we all). She offered that “Paul’s good at telling stories about people figuring themselves out.” Actually his films are about folks trying to figure that out.
The look of the film also adds a dismal shroud over its inhabitants. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan (Goodnight Mommy) washes the screen with garish low-budget casino crudeness, drab to a monotonous degree. Several times in the film, the camera does a real slow zoom in on a conversation that Tell is having with someone else. The focus is always on him, especially at the end of the shot, as the character’s sad eyes bear hard into the viewer. The few flashbacks to the Abu Ghraib torture scenes are extreme, shot in single-view, wide VR-mode to mimic watching the living hell and being unable to remove yourself from the many abuses all around you.
There’s also the dissonant score by Robert Leven Been (his father, Michael, had written songs that Schrader used in Light Sleeper), which is quite unnerving in its eeriness and uneasy rhythms, especially coupled with the distinctive vocals provided by singer-songwriter S.G. Goodman.
Some of you may be screaming at Schrader for his obsession with tormented souls in slow-burning, character-driven, and fiercely impulsive dramas, but if anyone’s going to tackle the genre, I want him driving the car. And Isaac is his poker face chauffeur in The Card Counter.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).