The Card Counter Paul Schrader Oscar Isaac

The Card Counter is Paul Schrader doing what he does best

The veteran-writer director explores his pet themes in this gambling thriller starring Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish.

If you have a long enough career as a filmmaker, it’s almost inevitable that your newer works will be unfavorably compared to your early ones. Martin Scorsese is accused of making the same gangster movie over and over again, even if only six of his 41 feature films could really be described as such; Clint Eastwood is still identified with Westerns even if his actual Westerns are few and far between these days. I’ll admit to often wanting to see directors try new things and stray from their biggest hits, especially earlier on in their careers, but there is something comforting and ultimately pretty satisfying about watching someone like Paul Schrader play through the hits. The Card Counter does not represent Paul Schrader trying something new. In fact, it represents Schrader trying almost nothing new and instead crafting a pretty exacting character piece anchored once again in his obsession with Robert Bresson and the concept of “God’s lonely man” that drives a good portion of his previous work. It is Paul Schrader doing Paul Schrader — and that’s a good thing.

William Tell (Oscar Isaac) travels from casino to casino, living in spartan hotel rooms and making a living from the not-too-ethical process of card-counting, a skill he picked up from an eight-year-stint in military prison. Tell is quiet, seething, exacting; he gambles just enough to make money but not enough to attract attention. His interactions with other gamblers are curt and business-oriented; he drinks but never seems to get drunk, sitting at the desk in a motel room he has covered in fabric and writing between bouts of gambling. Tell’s precise schedule and monk-like dedication to his chosen profession is disturbed with the introduction of two disrupting forces in his life: La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who runs a stable of gamblers and is interested in bankrolling Tell if he agrees to take on bigger amounts, and Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a wayward young man with revenge on his mind whose backstory intersects with Tell’s in disturbing ways.

Tell (it’s not exactly his real name, as we eventually find out) is the classic Schrader protagonist. Like Travis Bickle, he’s a veteran who favours a life of solitude; like Pastor Toller in First Reformed, he carries a deep burden of guilt that he tries to keep under control through devotion to his chosen profession — one that carries a ton of moral and ethical codes that seem to do much of the job for him. Like LeTour in Light Sleeper (and Bickle), he sees a (potentially final) chance for redemption in a sort of protective mentoring relationship with someone he has little control over in the long run. There isn’t much here that Schrader hasn’t explored in other films besides the gambling setting, which Schrader treats with a monotone precision that almost certainly guarantees the film won’t become a cult favourite with Texas Hold ‘Em bros. It’s a film about routine and purgatory, about staving off guilt and punishing yourself by continuing to live.

All of this is very much in Schrader’s wheelhouse, and he finds in his leads pretty willing collaborators even if neither of them fit the usual mold of these films. (Schrader’s most frequent collaborator, Willem Dafoe, has a small but pivotal role as the military contractor that links Tell and Cirk.) These are not showy performances — Schrader movies rarely are, with a couple of notable exceptions — but they act as more than simple furniture in what is ultimately a very sparse and tense exercise in Schrader’s usual thematic explorations.

If it sounds like my major takeaway is “ho-hum, more of the same,” The Card Counter is exactly the type of more-of-the-same that I want to see from ageing auteurs with obsessive thematic concerns. There’s a ruthless efficiency to The Card Counter that isn’t necessarily as prevalent in more left-field Schrader projects like Dog Eat Dog or The Canyons. It’s not without its flaws — as always with Schrader, some scenes are pitched slightly north of ridiculous, and the original songs by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Robert Levon Been are frankly kind of corny — but it’s always interesting to see a master flex on audiences with a hand tied behind his back. ■

The Card Counter opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 10.

The Card Counter, directed by Paul Schrader, starring Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish

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