Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Up All Night with “The Card Counter”

 Paul Schrader is not exactly a newcomer to Hollywood. The much-admired screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) as well as more than 20 other films, he began directing his own dark material early on. Remarkably, Schrader did not collect an Oscar nomination until 2019, when his First Reformed was recognized for its screenplay. First Reformed, featuring a strong performance by Ethan Hawke as a minister facing a crisis of faith, reflects Schrader’s own strict religious upbringing. He was raised in a Dutch Calvinist household that banned movies and most other kinds of secular entertainments. I’ve known friends who’ve broken away from homes in which movies were taboo, but Schrader is possibly unique in having – once he reached adulthood – cast off parental values so completely by making motion pictures his life’s work.

 Which doesn’t mean he threw all of his childhood teachings out the window. Schrader is known today as something of a poet of redemption. His central characters are lost and lonely souls who tacitly blame themselves for their fall from grace. It is only after a good deal of suffering and self-sacrifice that they feel ready to rejoin the human race, sometimes in unexpected ways. This may not seem like much fun to watch unfolding on screen, but 2021’s The Card Counter is a great example of how engrossing a Schrader film can be.

 The cast of The Card Counter is led by the protean Oscar Isaac, who’s also appearing in 2021’s sci-fi epic, Dune, as well as opposite Jessica Chastain in a new HBO adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Scenes from a Marriage. In the HBO drama, Isaac plays one half a couple, someone who desperately wants his relationship to survive. In The Card Counter, by contrast, he’s a loner, a man committed to solitude. He’s analytical enough to make a comfortable living as an itinerant gambler, haunting card rooms from Vegas to Atlantic City. Within the hurly-burly of up-all-night high-stakes casinos offering drinks, smokes, and sexual come-ons, the man who calls himself William Tell is fundamentally solitary. It’s only gradually, via disturbing flashbacks of time spent stationed at an overseas military prison, that we learn why he shuts others out. We also learn that he’s quietly capable of both love and revenge.

 The film does not belong to Isaac alone. Featured players, all impressive, include Tiffany Haddish as a woman who capably runs a stable of gamblers while managing to stave off her own demons. There’s also Tye Sheridan as a baby-faced young fellow who awakens Tell’s compassion, as well as Willem Dafoe (a Schrader regular) as a man from Tell’s past who haunts his dreams until he re-emerges in the everyday world.

 I had expected a Schrader script to be well-written, but I wasn’t prepared for the artfulness of his work as a director. Those essential flashbacks are filmed with a wide-angle lens that distorts familiar images and brings home the horror of the moment. And when it comes to character details, Schrader is terrifically inventive. As Tell travels the country, spending nights in anonymous motel rooms, he has the never-explained habit of wrapping every piece of furniture in white bedsheets he carries with him from place to place. When, at last, he confronts Dafoe’s Major John Gordo at his sumptuous DC-area home, I glimpsed something of the same deliberate austerity in Gordo’s surroundings. Why? That’s one of many elements in this film that’s worth pondering. As is, of course, Tell’s fate at the final fadeout, upon which Schrader’s camera dramatically lingers.  




  1. Thank you SO much for this piece. I’ve read piles of reviews and analyses of The Card Counter-all stirring, mysterious and necessarily open ended-but now there’s no doubt I’ll see it because of all the extra details and insights you provided. I’m so impressed with Issac (he was perfect as Llewyn Davis (really Dave Van Ronk from my Greenwich Village days-drove him home once after a concert on L I) for both his screen and TV work (glad he captured Eichmann too, even though he was one of my loves-Kingsley)and Willem is always exceptional. As for Schroeder, could can’t get better than Taxi Driver and Raging Bull; have recently been reading about his strengths as a director. Super piece, you always inform, explain and encourage readers in a warm and intelligent way. Best. Bob. PS. Are you immovable about keeping the Dodgers, I still have my Jackie Robinson jersey?

  2. Really? You interacted with Dave Van Ronk? I never saw him perform, but a friend's father collected his albums: it's a voice I won't soon forget, though of course Isaac's singing is completely different. Not at all sure what you mean by loves-Kingsley. But I'm sticking with the L.A. Dodgers, even post-Vin Scully.

  3. Yes, it’s a long story but I taught many classes at The New School had a radio show for 10 years about the power of the Folk era and when we went to a Dave concert we went backstage, developed a rapport and he was glad to get the lift. He lived across the street from the first integrated cafe in N Y, Cafe Society, Sheridan Sq. I think Ben Kingsley played Eichmann in a movie where Oscar captured him. I don’t blame you for keeping the Dodgers, the an incomparable spirit

  4. And Vinn being gone? A loss to the Dodgers, their fans and all of America, who heard him on so many national broadcasts. I grew up with him on the radio (God, do I love radio-still listen every day-NPR and some music) and I still have my 1955 World Series win (still HATE the Yankees) to hold on to, though you guys broke my heart when you beat my Mets in ‘88- but you guys WERE better; acknowledged. Best to ya. Bob