The last time we spoke with seasoned writer / director Paul Schrader, he gave us one of his best films with âFirst Reformedâ of 2017 – a tour de force for Ethan Hawke, who played a first pastor. reformed at the head of a declining congregation in New York. While serving members of his dying congregation, Hawke’s character struggled with his own belief in God as he saw the larger church heading in what he believed was the wrong direction. It was a hard-hitting and underrated film, which remains one of the best of 2017.
Now Schrader is back, albeit roaming part of the same territory, in âThe Card Counter,â another psychological drama – this time about a low-stakes gamer grappling with his own perception of the world around him. Prior to jumping into the game, William Tell (Oscar Isaac’s best performance since “A Most Violent Year”) spent more than eight years in federal prison for his role in torturing Iraqi prisoners of war in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison camp near Baghdad.
From voiceover storytelling (a common Schrader technique), we learn almost nothing about life before Tell’s army. But we see his appreciation for the military structure. He liked the rigid and predictable schedule and the cleanliness of his accommodation. It was in prison that Tell began to read.
Ironically, his post-military career mirrors that of his time in prison. He never stays in a casino. -hour motels. Why? As he explains, he doesn’t want casinos to know anything about him. He doesn’t necessarily have something to hide; he simply chooses to remain discreet.
Tell wraps all of the motel’s furnishings in white bedding, giving the whole room a sterile, drab and, dare I say it, predictable feel. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan films these dark motel rooms in the same red tones as the first prison scenes. In fact, the first images of the prison flashback are so washed out that I thought it was filming in black and white.
But that’s what Tell likes; that’s his comfort zone. And that’s vitally important to remember during the surprise ending (another cinematic technique from Schrader). In contrast, Dynan shoots the Abu Ghraib scenes in shades of yellow and red – and with an extreme wide-angle lens reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s âA Clockwork Orangeâ.
Tell’s calculable and boring lifestyle is about to be turned upside down – by not one, but two superfluous incidents. First, he reconnects with La Linda, a shrewd businesswoman (played by Tiffany Haddish) who has been chasing Tell for years to enable her to provide backers (or investors) who would pay out large sums of money. ‘money to Tell, in exchange for a portion of his winnings.
Keeping his character, Tell never showed any interest. As he explains to La Linda, he prefers to bet small and win small – just enough to put food on the table, but not enough for one of the casinos to ever notice. Again, this guy flies well under the radar.
Around the same time, Tell is approached by young Cirk (pronounced Kirk), whose father also served his sentence for his role in the Abu Ghraib torture sessions. Cirk’s father has since committed suicide because of his PSTD. Cirk (Tye Sheridan) accuses Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) of training and brainwashing young soldiers to become agents of unconstitutional persecution. He asks Tell for help in killing Gordo, but (as you might expect) Tell advises Cirk to just move on.
Instead, Tell seriously considers La Linda’s offer to increase his proverbial stake and accept financial support, so that he can help Cirk pay off his college debt and continue his education. This plot structure is also common for Schrader. This manifested itself not only in âFirst Reformed,â but also in Martin Scorsese’s classic âTaxi Driverâ from 1976, for which Schrader wrote the screenplay. Remember taxi driver Travis Bickle’s desire to “save” a young prostitute (played by Jodie Foster) from the slavery of her career? A similar story is at play here: Bickle’s prostitute has never asked for her help, and Cirk doesn’t ask Tell for a hand either. Schrader’s main characters seem to have a burning desire to replace their own losses with heroic acts of kindness and redemption towards others.
None of this is to say that “The Card Counter” is exactly like any other movie ever made – even those by Paul Schrader. Yes, it is derived from both its cinematic structure and its narratives. But remember what a great company we’re in here: âFirst Reformedâ was one of the best of the last few years, and âTaxi Driverâ is one of the biggest and most important movies ever made. I’m not ready to say that “The Card Counter” or even “First Reformed” are in the same league as “Taxi Driver”, but “The Card Counter” is definitely the best image I’ve seen so far. This year.
Because the 2020 season has been delayed by COVID-19, 2021 will be a short season. âThe Card Counterâ may not have as much competition as it does in a feature film season. That bodes well for the potential Oscars and her Top Ten ranking by many critics. It’s already above mine.