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► The Card Counter is in UK cinemas from November 5.
Paul Schrader is probably the only mainstream director currently interested in protagonists who sit down and write. He is also perhaps one of the last to be committed to protagonists who think: in his latest film, who pursue thought as a way of life and practise it methodically, as suggested by the title The Card Counter. Its hero is not merely a gambler, but someone who rigorously calculates the odds and the numbers, then withdraws at the right moment. A professional blackjack player, he always plays for medium stakes then leaves quietly with his modest winnings. His nom de guerre is ‘William Tell’, which not only suggests a propensity both to narration and to heroic rebellion, but alludes to the gambler’s ‘tell’, the involuntary mannerism that exposes their thoughts. This character, however, is not so easily exposed; he has constructed his identity as an enclosed, smooth shell, and it is only little by little that the film cracks it apart.
Schrader plays his own hand methodically, measuring out his revelations. The film begins with Tell’s voiceover, recalling how he was once afraid of confined space, yet became easily attuned to life in Leavenworth Prison, where he studied the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Now released, he travels the US as a blackjack player, keeping a distance from the world, always following a ritual practice of wrapping his hotel rooms’ furniture in white sheets, removing its distinguishing features as he has erased his own. Tell is a quiet man who has tuned his personality down to near-zero, though as played by Oscar Isaac he inescapably cuts a dashing figure, with his elegantly discreet grey suits and saturnine, enclosed manner.
Three people combine to bring Tell out of himself and into the world, all encountered in the drab American galaxy of hotels and malls that is the gambling circuit’s unglamorous habitat, and in which individual cities barely register. One is gambling agent La Linda, a vivid, sly performance by Tiffany Haddish. She wants to recruit Tell for high-stakes poker, but is also interested in exploratory flirtation, and in prising open his enigmatic exterior – something for which her flamboyantly long fingernails might symbolically equip her.
The second person is an intense young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who wants to enlist Tell for a revenge mission in which he knows the gambler will have a personal stake. Cirk’s plan targets the third person Tell encounters: a man seen at a counter-espionage convention, touting lie-detection tech. Himself lying about his identity, he is really Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), once an officer at Abu Ghraib prison, scene of the US’s horrific human rights violations in Iraq. Flashbacks – shot with extreme wide-angle lenses that warp the prison’s corridors nightmarishly, as if we’re immersed in a wildly distorted VR experience – show Tell in his former self, as soldier William Tillich, recruited by Gordo to carry out, as one of our age’s grimmest euphemisms has it, ‘enhanced interrogation’.
Tillich, we learn, was court-martialled and imprisoned, while Gordo got off free as an independent contractor. Someone else who paid the price for association with him was Cirk’s father, which is why the young man wants Gordo dead. With Tillich’s backstory laid bare, he ends up taking a huge bet on Cirk, adopting him as protégé, hopeful that he can redeem the kid and perhaps himself. Meanwhile, a slow-burning encounter with La Linda suggests that Tillich, after years of grey-toned seclusion, might be coming back to life – as suggested by a nocturnal walk together through a hallucinatory forest of coloured lights.
Redemption is a more than well-worn theme in US drama, although it often comes alive – coupled with its table partner, perdition – in the gambling movie (a memorable recent example, Boden and Fleck’s underrated Mississippi Grind, 2015). But redemption as a theme regains its full spiritual and theological weight when we’re dealing with Schrader, a lifelong disciple of Robert Bresson. The Card Counter is one of the ‘lonely men’ dramas in which Schrader seems most vitally and seriously himself: among them, Light Sleeper (1992), which starred Dafoe; 2017’s magisterial, severe First Reformed; Taxi Driver (1976), which Schrader scripted; and American Gigolo (1980), which ended, as does The Card Counter, with a visual allusion to the redemptive closing shot of Bresson’s Pickpocket.
We may well feel uneasy when redemption is a theme of US dramas about historical wrongs done by America: that’s the recurrent problem of Hollywood’s Vietnam cycle, which dwells solipsistically on the psychic damage incurred by American soldiers, and their struggle to mend their selves. In fact, it’s not entirely the case that mainstream Western cinema cannot engage with the experiences of non-Western victims – take the recent earnest but honourable The Mauritanian, about Guantánamo internee Mohamedou Ould Slahi.
In this case, however, Schrader’s philosophical seriousness and dramatic sobriety convince us to take Tillich’s travails seriously, and to accept that they have a spiritual as well as worldly dimension; besides, the experiences of those tortured in Abu Ghraib would require an extraordinary leap of artistic vision and empathy to convincingly portray them from the inside without being presumptuously intrusive. That said, Schrader does push his heightened vision of earthly hell a touch too far in a shot where Gordo’s cackling face looms grotesquely in close-up like a pantomime demon.
What truly makes the film is its paced, tempered restraint and reserve, with only occasional discreet flashes of the satire that you might expect in depictions of the gambling scene: such as a brash, self-promoting player in Stars and Stripes regalia, his followers triumphally roaring, “USA!”, and who is of course from the former Soviet Union.
The film is a triumph for Isaac, whose calm, elegant inwardness, hinting at deep, heavily secured reservoirs of anguish and self-loathing in Tell, registers tautly as the character’s wry scepticism about the world, and absolute hard-won reliance on the self. It’s characteristic of the film that its great climactic moment of truth is played out behind closed doors, as Tell/Tillich steps forward with an air of gritted weariness before the inevitable. It’s a pure Schrader moment, the culmination of a rare contemporary film that flies the flag for the cerebral agonist.
Where to begin with Paul Schrader
As his latest film, The Card Counter, is dealt into cinemas, we chart a beginner’s course through Paul Schrader’s cinema of loners and lost souls.
By Brogan Morris
Originally published: 4 November 2021