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Film Review: The Card Counter

12 November 21 words: Aaron Roe

God’s lonely man returns yet again in Paul Schrader’s psychological thriller...

Director: Paul Schrader
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan
Running time: 112 minutes

Paul Schrader’s (Taxi Driver, Blue Collar) characters have stalked the dark recesses of cinema for fifty years, trapped in cyclical limbos of masculine disillusion; invisible creatures in a world that turns a blind eye. He was having somewhat of a creative wobble before his comeback with First Reformed and he’s flexing that idiosyncratic, story-telling muscle again with William Tell (Oscar Isaac),  the ex-con turned card counter who prowls casinos, for his latest film The Card Counter.

“I was an American kid… confinement of any kind was terrifying” – Tell’s dulcet voiceover hangs like a black cloud, words juxtaposed by the insipid brutal shot of a prison canteen. After almost a decade inside with no means of passing the time other than counting cards, Tell has all but dissolved into those shades of grey, drifting from seedy casino to seedy casino with a glued on poker-face, a fixture of the blackjack table. Going through the motions of his post-incarcerated, transient existence, he finds solace in the rules of the house – one facet of his life which he has relative control over – never making flashy bets, paying solely in cash, and forgoing personal connections. He carries out odd, almost masochistic rituals such as covering the furniture of whichever motel room he finds himself in in stark bedsheets. Is this to make it easier to slip under the radar, or perhaps to make those four walls more like a prison? Either way, he’s committed to a hand which he never reveals. 

“Then,” in the words of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, “suddenly, there is a change,” and the monotony is broken by two intersecting relationships. La Linda (Tiffany Hadish), another fixture of the gambling halls, approaches Tell and offers financial backing, a partnership in which she would share some of his winnings – something that he quickly refuses. However, La Linda is persistent and, charged with subtle eroticism, she threatens to melt his icy heart. Cirk (Ty Sheredan), a fatherless, wide-eyed millennial, triggers Tell’s parental instincts whilst also awakening his dark military past, which bubbles just underneath the surface. The interactions between these characters are by no means cutting-edge, especially if you’re familiar with Schrader’s narrative blueprints; it’s obvious these relationships are constructed to give these loners a brief shot at redemption. These transient arcs are where the film's primary source of tension comes from – the hand that slowly reveals itself, the tightened coil ready to snap into an explosion of cathartic violence.

If I were a betting man, I’d say Schrader’s latest is destined to have the shelf life of a cult-classic

Oscar Isaac is the perfect vessel for his director, fleshing out Tell’s disposition with such uncanny restraint and simmering resentment, uncompromising when it comes to the uncomfortable dysfunctionality of the character, and heart-breaking in moments of sheer revelation. It might just be his most remarkable performance to date. The camera is muted – apart from forays into the transcendence of intimacy or the harrowing nightmarishness of military torture – but all it needs to do is observe Isaac, who embodies everything we love about Schrader; that feeling of moral ambiguity, not knowing where we stand, trying to wrap our head around the contradictions we’re seeing.

It’s such a hard film to consider without taking the rest of Schrader’s filmography into account. Tell’s DNA feels traceable through films like Blue Collar, Taxi Driver, Hardcore and Light Sleeper; self-righteousness, entitlement, penance and delusional heroics of men who ultimately do not belong. Is this Schrader’s crack at nostalgia? A director’s autumnal film where they revisit the themes that defined them? He’s never really strayed far from his own brand of toxic masculinity, so I don’t think he’s getting sentimental just yet. In fact, what is brilliant about this film is the anger and cynicism he has for contemporary society; technology is the enabler for violence, “USA, USA, USA!” is chanted by a boisterous poker player simply called Mr. USA and Tell is always shown to be a product of his volatile environment. 

The Card Counter is a fascinating piece, but it doesn’t have the gloss, the pacing or the accessibility of a commercial thriller, and Isaac’s character is sure to make a lot of people uncomfortable. But if I were a betting man, I’d say Schrader’s latest is destined to have the shelf life of a cult-classic.

Did you know? Paul Schrader is notorious for being outspoken on his Facebook page, and in the past has been asked by both Focus Features and A24 to take a hiatus from posting while they were distributing his films. 

The Card Counter is in cinemas now

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