“Is it possible to know when one reaches the limit?”
Fewer careers have enjoyed more admiration, anonymity and variety than that of Paul Schrader’s. The writer/director has never had a massive blockbuster the way his contemporaries have, nor has he ever established a tried and true filmmaking formula through his vast body of work. It’s also hard to call Schrader experimental since there’s usually (but definitely not always) a straight forward approach to his oftentimes provocative films. It’s not every director who can immerse himself in the world of L.A.’s 70s porn scene in Hardcore, remake the Val Lewton classic Cat People (completely making it his own), combine dark humor and intrigue in the D.C.-set The Walker or bring a Bret Easton Ellis screenplay to life with The Canyons. With each film, Schrader goes beyond surfaces and perceptions to unearth a darkened kaleidoscope of humanity. His latest, The Card Counter, fits perfectly into this vein and not only emerges as one of the season’s first noteworthy titles, but also reminds audiences of the power of Paul Schrader.
After having spent years in a military prison for his part in a series of war crimes, William Tell (Oscar Isaac) spends his life traveling from casino to casino playing blackjack, using the skill of card counting he learned while incarcerated. One night, William meets La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a successful backer of talented gamblers she shepherds all the way to Vegas and big winnings who sets her sights on him. Shortly thereafter, he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man whose deceased father served with William in the war and who now seeks revenge on their old commander Gordo (Willem Dafoe).
The highlight of any Schrader film for me has always been the world he’s been able to craft, whether going off of his own words or someone else’s. All of the aforementioned films succeed in creating universes unto their own with a familiarity that carries with it a kind of unease that’s hard to pinpoint, yet remains distinct. Taking place primarily in run-of-the-mill motel rooms and roadside casinos, there aren’t a lot of visual pleasures to be found in the world of The Card Counter. There is however that wonderful noirsh stain that follows William wherever he goes and presides over the whole of the film. Enough of the genre creeps up within the plot to be considered modern noir, but it’s in the landscape Schrader paints where it’s strongest. Every person we encounter, be they a side character or a passerby, embodies an aimlessness and a despair, as if they’re prisoners of a place where victory is momentary and loss is permanent. The unglamorous approach taken here was the right one. Even if its muted colors, unflattering lighting and nondescript locations cost the film some technical awards recognition, it’s a fitting way to capture this land of hopelessness and desperation where even that which does look nice feels tarnished.
Like the world they exist in, the people within The Card Counter share a certain type of morose quality which makes each of them something of a lost soul. La Linda may not share anything close to the same connection as William and Cirk, but there’s evidence that she’s nonetheless lived a past defined by pain and regret that is responsible for her confidence to emerge in a male-dominated world and the knowledge that she shouldn’t expect anything genuine from the men she encounters. Cirk on the other hand, is probably one of the most tragic figures ever to emerge from a Schrader film. A youth who never really had a youth, his whole life has been lived under the influence of a tortured father, who has passed his demons onto his son. Yet it’s the titular card counter who is the most compelling thanks to the overall grimness of his existence. William is haunted like only a handful of other men can be thanks to his experiences in the war that’s left him in such a damaged mental state from which there’s no escape. The chance for atonement and redemption does indeed show itself in the form of Cirk and the possibility that he can save the young man (and maybe himself) by giving him a chance at an actual life. Overall however, there’s hardly room for William anywhere else but in a world that has everything to do with intense precision and concentration and almost nothing to do with anything remotely human and real.
There’s definitely a certain type of performer who belongs in the kind of world Schrader creates; the kind which bears a striking resemblance to reality, but also feels slightly elevated and isolated. With his simmering intensity and guardedness, Isaac is the perfect choice to inhabit William. One look at his composure, his overall containment and the rare moments he lets emotion come through and we know we are seeing the perfect actor/director collaboration come to life. While Dafoe’s shorthand with Schrader is well-established by this point to expect the actor to deliver what’s expected of him, it takes Sheridan just a bit longer to match his seasoned costars. The young actor eventually gets there, however, leaving the audience with an impression that makes us rethink our overall estimation of Cirk. It’s Haddish who is the real surprise here. The actress leaves her large comic persona at the door in order to bring a somewhat pensive quality mixed in with just enough levity and mystique to make you wish her scenes would last a bit longer.
It would have been far too easy for Schrader to make a conventional message-driven film about the atrocities committed during the war. Enough time is spent on them to show their horrific nature in a pair of unsettling sequences. Rather than make a straight up indictment, the film instead acts as a sort of testament to the people that were damaged by those acts. The Card Counter is without a doubt, quintessential Schrader. As a film, it enjoys a kind of storytelling that remains undeniably timeless while maintaining a compelling edge in the way few can deliver. Even the film’s ending manages to mix the kind of life and passion seen in the director’s past numerous times from Blue Collar to First Reformed, holding the wowed audience captive until the credits roll. The way the film moves, the way plot turns happen in The Card Counter all happen with such a quiet power, they can’t help but speak to the kind of skilled filmmaker who still maintains an unquestionable hunger and fire for his work.