Paul Schrader’s résumé is as complete as anyone’s in film history. As a screenwriter he gifted the world Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. He has directed gems such as Affliction and, in my opinion one of the best movies of the last decade, First Reformed. As if all that were not enough, just listen to Schrader speak in interviews about the history of film and you will be humbled; he has likely forgotten more about film than you ever hope to know.
In many of his films Schrader focuses on a male protagonist living a lonely life and who is left abandoned in a universe wherein there are no clear answers to his moral dilemmas. Schrader’s characters wrestle with moral ambiguity; yet life forces them to choose. There is no better example of the Schrader-ian protagonist than Ethan Hawke’s character in First Reformed. Even Schrader’s Christ in Last Temptation is a protagonist wracked by moral doubt—this is the main reason why Last Temptation was so controversial with some Christians who cannot conceive of doubt in relation to Christ. Schrader is the most Dostoyevsky-esque director in the history of film.
He presents lonely underground men as vehicles for presenting Christian themes such as sacrifice, redemption, and moral fortitude. Dostoyevsky was a Christian and a profligate gambler. In fact, he wrote a novella titled “The Gambler.” The connection between Dostoyevsky and Schrader becomes even tighter with Schrader’s latest, The Card Counter.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is an Iraq war veteran. He served time in a military jail after following orders to torture and humiliate inmates at Abu Ghraib prison while his superior and interrogation trainer—John Gordo (Willem Dafoe)—faced no repercussions due to the fact that he worked for a private military contractor. After his prison term, William spends his time going from casino to casino, from sketchy motel to sketchier motel, across the USA. He does not gamble for money.
He gambles in the most Sisyphean manner possible—to pass the time. Military service and prison changed him. His sentences are clipped, he is disciplined, fastidious, engages in quirky habits, and his aura seems to carry the weight of regret. Along the way he meets a mysterious woman, La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who is trying to recruit him into her gambling stable; and an alienated young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who tries to pull William into a plot that involves taking revenge on John Gordo.
The Card Counter is not groundbreaking in terms of narrative. The revenge plotline and the love story between William and La Linda are conventional. But focusing on plot does no justice to The Card Counter. In terms of mood, character development, and the themes explored, Schrader hits it out of the park. Schrader crafts a character for grade A talent like Oscar Isaac, and not surprisingly, Isaac gives an acting masterclass—you need no more evidence of his talent than a scene involving Isaac and Sheridan in a diner wherein Isaac recounts his experiences as a military interrogator.
Schrader is a director in full control of his toolbox. We get beautiful POV shots of William Tell walking in casinos. And a film about gambling better make sure that it captures the attraction to and beauty of cards, chips, and tables. Schrader more than succeeds in this regard. When he films cards, those cards float on the table, they dance as if they were ballerinas, they are sublime. Does the film’s middle section drag a bit? Yes. Were there times when I felt the film’s music was too obtrusive. Absolutely. These flaws, however, are not enough to diminish The Card Counter’s many merits.
Ultimately, Schrader is commenting on America in The Card Counter. America’s crimes in Iraq are front and center, patriotism is explored, and we are thrown into what is perhaps the most Underground Man/Dostoyevskian place imaginable—the epicenter of atomized individualism, America the lonely.
Throw into the mix Catholic notions of regret and redemption in relation to America’s unaccounted for crimes in the Middle East, and you have a true understanding of what Schrader is going for in The Card Counter. This is a powerful film. It is mature, in control, knows what it wants to say, and says it both in terms of script and visuals. Schrader has cemented himself as one of the giants of film.
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