Having written one of the definitive film theory texts in 1972 (Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer) Paul Schrader has frequently returned to the well of Robert Bresson for inspiration throughout his filmmaking career. Echoes of Bresson’s stripped-back style can be seen all through Schrader’s filmography. From ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘American Gigolo’, to ‘First Reformed’ the influence of films such as ‘Pickpocket’ and ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ have been evident.
His latest film, ‘The Card Counter’ once again swerves into Bresson territory, depicting yet another isolated and disconnected loner, existing in a spare and ascetic environment of their own creation, and pouring their thoughts into a diary, which we hear via voice-over. The man in question here is William Tell (Oscar Isaac) a disciplined poker player, who tours the casinos on the East coast.
He learned to count cards in prison, and uses his skill modestly. Bet small. Win small. Stay off the radar. He never stays in the casino hotels, instead checking into small motels, where he covers every surface in white sheets. We discover the reason he was incarcerated was for his part in the infamous “enhanced interrogation” (aka torture) of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison during the second Gulf War in Iraq. He may have left this life behind a long time ago, but it continues to haunt him. The flashbacks and dreams he endures of what he witnessed there, what he participated in, are truly horrific.
With Oscar Isaac looking effortlessly cool, and stylish as all hell, you could be forgiven for thinking this was going to be the latest addition to the gambling movie genre. But Schrader has other ideas, and just as he did with ‘First Reformed’ uses a simple set up to dig into the corrosive heart of modern America. Can a country truly recover from what was done over there? Can a person’s soul?
Tell is doing the best he can, until at one casino he stumbles across a defence industry convention, where John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) is speaking. Gordo was the private military contractor who taught Tell everything about torture when they were in Iraq together, but whilst Tell went to prison, Gordo went unpunished for his crimes. Also watching Gordo speak is Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man who for his own very personal reasons is seeking revenge against Gordo. He wants Tell’s help, but Tell instead tries to take him under his wing and show him a different path that doesn’t end in violence. It’s impossible not to think of Travis Bickle and Iris here.
‘The Card Counter’ then morphs into a very low-key, slow burn road trip movie of sorts, whilst still being a haunting character study. Tiffany Haddish shows up as a stable boss for poker players, who helps bankroll Tell in some higher profile games. Schrader teases the possibility of a happy outcome for these three mis-matched characters, but then you come to your senses and remember that you are watching a Paul Schrader film.
Overall, it’s another bold swing from the director, though not quite as laser-focused as ‘First Reformed’. The central conceit of finding a parallel between what Tell used to do, and what he does now never really comes together in a meaningful way. No matter how hard the script tries, torture and poker do not co-exist in the same emotional sphere. It’s another fascinating film from Schrader however, with an absolute knockout of an ending, and Oscar Isaac is on sensational form.
‘The Card Counter’ is available now on Blu-ray and DVD
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe Director: Paul Schrader Writer: Paul Schrader Released By: Dazzler Media Certificate: 15 Duration: 112 mins Release Date: 27th June 2022