Now on Blu-ray: Paul Schrader’s Captivating ‘The Card Counter’

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The Card Counter Review

A man sits alone at a table, pen in hand, pad of paper in front, and a bottle of hard booze to the side. He sips at his drink while scribbling down his thoughts. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because it’s a feature of many of the works of writer-director Paul Schrader. Whether it’s in his classic script for Taxi Driver or his acclaimed feature First Reformed or his latest examination of solitude and despair The Card Counter, Schrader utilizes this device to take beyond the mere plot of his story but deep into the psyche of his characters. Whereas some might see this as a sign of a creator stuck in a rut, Paul Schrader has been delivering stellar work for decades and is unconcerned with lazy, reductive examinations of his work. And if you get hung up on the surface of Schrader’s work, you’ll miss the ever-evolving examination of deeply human feelings of alienation and despair that are often shaped and exacerbated by larger political and social forces.

Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell, a gambler with the ability to count cards, as indicated by the film’s title. However, behind his steely gaze lies a lot of secrets. His name is an alias. He hides the details of his military past. Even though he’s able to mathematically gain an edge when gambling, he doesn’t go to high stakes tables as to not gain attention. During his travels across the country at various casinos, he meets a number of colorful characters, including LaLinda (Tiffany Haddish) who offers to stake William if he wants to play at higher stakes tables in the future. William also encounters Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who likes to remind everyone that it’s “Kirk with a C,” the son of a soldier that William served beside. As hard as he’s tried to put the past behind him, the arrival of Cirk promises to dredge up the past pain and the consequences suffered for his past actions.

The reality for William is that he’s spent eight years in a military prison for his role in the ghastly torture that took place at Abu Ghraib. Cirk’s father was also imprisoned for his role in executing the orders to carry out inhumane torture from his superiors, and Cirk’s father fell heavily into alcoholism before taking his own life. William and Cirk’s father faced consequences for their actions while the architects of this grotesque program of torture and abuse. Cirk wants to team with William to murder Major John Gordon (Willem Dafoe), who escaped all accountability and continues to lead a life of prominence, giving speeches to military and police conventions.

What makes The Card Counter, like First Reformed before it, so powerful is the way that Schrader is able to channel his own outrage at America’s moral failure into fascinating characters that are struggling to maintain their grip on their own sanity in an insane nation. The existential crisis that William finds himself enmeshed is one we see repeatedly play out in real life, like the nation’s complete inability to actually reckon with its failures, geopolitically and morally, in its seemingly never-ending “War on Terror.” After all, a society that fails to confront its failures is doomed to repeat them, possibly more egregiously in the future.

Schrader’s direction in The Card Counter is often kind of stoic, reflecting the demeanor of its main character. The film doesn’t just take us deep into the mindset of its lead, but it also establishes the passage of time as hour after hour passes as countless hands of cards are dealt. But then when going into flashbacks of Abu Ghraib, Schrader goes for broke. He uses extremely wide-angle lenses in long Steadicam shots that creates a nightmare-like distortion to the images of torture and degradation. If Abu Ghraib represents the madness of a country that lost its morality, the skewed imagery represents just how warped America’s moral compass has become.

The Card Counter also boasts some incredible performances. Oscar Isaac is steely and detached as the eponymous card counter. At once, it’s understandable that years of incarceration has made it easy for him to leave any situation and stay within the confines of his own mind. It’s also a way to convey the character’s intense focus and concentration as he calculates his odds and the remaining cards in the deck. Perhaps the biggest surprise performance in The Card Counter is that of Tiffany Haddish. Over the past few years, Haddish has really broken out as a rambunctious, hilarious performer in comedies like Girls Trip and Bad Trip. Here’s she’s much more subdued, and it’s a welcome change of pace that really illustrates the breadth of her talent. Haddish’s LaLinda is a character of quiet confidence that often hides behind a wry smile. And yet in this world of cold calculation and cutthroat odds there’s a warmth to LaLinda, and it’s fascinating to behold her slowly growing infatuation with William.

The Card Counter is another excellent film by Paul Schrader. While it may not be as great as First Reformed, it’s still another example of Schrader as a moralist examining what morality means in modern America. Schrader interrogates the difference between the nation’s professed ideals and its actions, and does so in an engrossing drama that isn’t about lecturing the audience or pandering to preexisting political beliefs. Asking tough questions of ourselves and taking deep look into the mirror proves to be another winning hand for Paul Schrader.

The Card Counter
  • Overall Score
4

Summary

A well-acted. masterfully written and directed drama from writer-director Paul Schrader, The Card Counter is a captivating drama that examines the moral rot left behind by some of America’s failures in its darkest moments on the War on Terror.

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