Are we amidst Paul Schrader’s creative renaissance? After 2017’s masterful First Reformed, the writer/director appears to be back in the graces of Hollywood prestige, following a period marked by lost, forgotten and/or undervalued features (and nutty Lindsay Lohan vehicle The Canyons). His latest is The Card Counter — now on HBO Max — in which Oscar Isaac plays a career gambler whose austere facade shelters a few demons. Of course it hides a few demons — this is a Paul Schrader film, after all. It’s just a matter of which shade of darkness he’s plumbing this time around.
THE CARD COUNTER: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: His name is William Tell (Isaac), but he has no tells. In voiceover, he explains how he learned to count cards while he was in prison. Once, he yearned to roam free, but he adjusted just fine to the confinements of incarceration. (Curious.) He’s out now, a man without a permanent home, traveling the country, visiting casinos to play blackjack and poker. This is his living. We meet him as he takes a modest $750 in winnings. He’s OK with low-stakes games, because he knows casinos are OK with card counters who don’t win too big. He doesn’t say much. He wears a sleek suit jacket and pants and an impenetrable glower, eschewing the hoodies, sunglasses or goofy outsized personae of other pro gamblers. Those are just distractions — he’s a purist, it seems. What are his tells? Does he have any? He may not have any.
William checks into a motel room, takes the pictures off the wall, unplugs the clock and phone, and meticulously wraps all the furniture in white sheets and twine. Interesting. Peculiar. Only adds to his pod-person vibes. But probably not a bad idea when you’re staying at the $65-a-night Super 8. He writes in his journal and sips whisky and goes to sleep and has distorted fisheye-lens nightmares about a military torture prison where inmates clamber naked through human feces and crouch in excruciatingly painful positions while excoriating heavy metal blares. Does that explain it? William’s idiosyncrasies? Perhaps. Is anything ever so easily explained? After a few hands, he sees a familiar face: La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). She’s been around the tables. She runs a “stable” for pro gamblers; her backers put up the dough and he gets a cut of the winnings. He’s not interested. She asks him why he gambles. “It passes the time,” he says.
William’s next stop is a casino where a law-enforcement conference is taking place. He drops into a seminar fronted by Gordo (Willem Dafoe), listens to a spiel. Cirk (Tye Sheridan), pronounced “Kirk,” recognizes William as the guy who took the fall for Gordo when Gordo was shouting orders at his underlings at Abu Ghraib. (Aha!) Cirk spells it out to William: He carries a major grudge. He wants Gordo dead. The situation inspires — awakens? — something in William. He changes his loner-life tack and not only invites Cirk to travel along with him from casino to casino, but agrees to La Linda’s proposal. Why the change of heart? He wants to earn some dough to help Cirk straighten his life out, he tells La Linda. There also may be a romantic spark between this charming woman and mysterious man. This mysterious man whose motives are so difficult to ascertain.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: “It passes the time,” William says. “I drive,” Ryan Gosling says in Drive. “Someday a rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets,” Robert De Niro says in Taxi Driver.
Performance Worth Watching: Isaac’s on full simmer here. He plays a pressure cooker of a human being, darkness within, deeply conflicted, scary-handsome, handsomely scary, terrifyingly charismatic, charismatically terrifying.
Memorable Dialogue: “You just go around and around ’til you work things out.” — William
Sex and Skin: One tastefully rendered sex scene; male nudity during a scene of torture.
Our Take: The Card Counter is not a typical gambling movie. Of course it’s not. Schrader shows no interest in the usual poker-table dramatics; his protagonist is a mathematician, and I imagine watching him play is akin to looking over the shoulder of someone working out quadratic equations. What he does in casinos is barely even gambling, and frankly, lousy quasi-noir movie fodder. Far more engaging is spending time with a man who has no permanent address and drives from one place to the next, following a borderline-deranged personal regimen, trying to strike a balance between the piece of him that’s capable of torturing people, and the piece that cares about his fellow humans.
Schrader directs the film with exacting control, its visual rigor contrasting his protagonist, seemingly concocted to inspire inferences. Why the name William Tell (as in the overture, and shooting an apple off a child’s head)? Why does he keep a handwritten journal? Why the sheets and the twine? Why is he celibate? Why does he feel the need to take an aimless slob of a college-age kid under his wing? Amusingly, he strikes a deal with Cirk: If the kid calls his estranged mother, he promises to get laid. William’s demeanor finds common ground between earnest concern for Cirk, and a crepuscular shadow of the soul inspiring a queasy feeling, leaving us to wonder if this is how Dahmer groomed the poor souls who ended up in his freezer. The film is a character study and a collection of provocations spinning out myriad interpretations, one of which sure seems to be how America creates damaged men like William — and Taxi Driver’s Vietnam vet Travis Bickle — by drawing out their most despicable tendencies.
So we spend much of the film trying to put our thumb on a character who’s coated with petroleum jelly, but it’s an endeavor that’s far more fascinating than frustrating. William Tell is right in line with Schrader’s broken loners like Travis Bickle and First Reformed’s Rev. Toller, desperate men searching for a place for themselves in the world. Schrader takes the subject matter seriously, but also stands at enough of an emotional remove to acknowledge the absurdity not just of the scenario, but existence itself, in the movie and in reality. It’s a harrowing drama and a sly comedy, the narrative progressing with equal amounts of uncertainty and inevitability, through moments of beauty and brutality, and concluding with a final (and dare I say transcendent?) shot held suspended in time. This isn’t just provocation for its own sake, it’s provocation with intent.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Card Counter doesn’t offer much resembling traditional dramatic resolution, and if you’re expecting otherwise, then you haven’t seen a movie by Schrader, who routinely sets his characters on crazy, unsettling paths to redemption.
— Decider (@decider) November 15, 2021