The Card Counter

The Card Counter ★★★★

Ahhhh, the mundanity of North American gambling. It is a very particular style of bland and brown-hued casino lobbies that make for the depressing experience. The Card Counter showcases Paul Schrader's best ability of showing the underbelly of Americana. He's not interested in the rain-slicked psychedelia of Taxi Driver. Schrader has adopted this very ascetic and punishing aesthetic. It's similar to what he got in First Reformed. But I'd argue this ugliness isn't a mea culpa for the seasoned director. Schrader clearly understands aesthetics, reaching his formalistic height with Mishima in the 80s when it seemed like all of his colleagues had lost their aesthetic abilities lol.

Where Uncut Gems tried really hard to be ugly and visceral and tantalizes the audience with a kind of "pornography of gambling" as a reprieve, The Card Counter is just plain ugly and intentionally monotonizes the ritual of gambling. Schrader borrows from his lauded transcendental style of neo-realism to dryly explain most table games and doesn't dramatize their mechanics. If you want to feel the sheer aesthetic escapism of gambling, watch Casino. If you want to capture the truth of most gamblers experiences, watch this. And that's not to say Schrader makes a dry film. It has excellent character beats that makes the film more about humans (what a novel idea. Safdies, take note).

Oscar Isaac as William Tell is a fascinating character that I found myself totally absorbed by. I admittedly love Oscar Isaac, but to see this character as a kind of anti-James Bond, a true man of mystery was an impressive feat. More impressive is watching him, like Hawke, in his inexpressive performance still master these subtle character developments. There is a meta-narrative (as there usually is with Schrader), surrounding the mystique of gambling (filmmaking) with a younger generation as personified by Tye Sheridan's character. They meet at a surveillance conference (another nod to the voyeuristic nature of cinema) being lectured by an ex-military man (Yep, military involvement with cinema metaphor through and through).

The two characters form a very stunted and awkward father-son relationship after William finds out Ty's father was in the same infantry as him but ended his life shortly after. From there, Ty Sheridan goes under Wiliam's wings on his gambling circuit. He doesn't learn gambling or want to form any kind of emotional bond to William. They just kind of exist to keep each other from their absolute loneliness. No one does loneliness better than Schrader. I'm very bereft to think about another writer/director who does it so masterfully. These aren't lonely people. They are the most alone people.

The aloneness is also captured beautifully in the table game scenes of the casino. The only character that seems to have any friends is a Ukraininan-born gambler that has an entourage that follow him around chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" at every poker tournament. I'm smiling thinking about this character. Every middle stakes poker tournament has this kind of Chris Sky player that thinks he's more important than he is. I must say I love that Schrader gives this guy all of like three medium shots throughout the film but exists only as a background noise throughout the rest. Another great example of Schrader's masterful constraint.

If you like being punished by a Dutch Calvinist restraint, late Schrader is the way to go (with the exception of Dog Eat Dog). There's dramatic choices he makes with the gambling scenes that are absolutely devastating for a gambler. For example, he does this thing during the poker tournaments where he doesn't give you the flop or the entire scene is shot through mediums on the players and their calls, but you never see the action. You get a "call" or "raise" and a collection of chips, but the allure of the risk is totally drained. I fuckin loovvveee that Schrader did this. You want flashy entertainment? Go watch the WSOP Bracelet Series on ESPN. We're here for cinema.

This is a frustrating choice, but one that falls in line with the character history of torture-experiments in Abu Grahib. There is no pleasure. Schrader is doubling down on torture and doesn't relieve the audience for one second. He even evades the torture scenes we all sadistically expect from him. Rather, he seems more interested in the romance between Tiffani Haddish and Oscar Isaac. It's a really beautiful departure from the incel-expectant nature of Schrader's protagonists. We aren't given a reincarnation of Travis Bickle, but someone who went to war and wants to actually form loving relationships. There isn't a shred of resentment in William's character. It's fascinating to see, especially when Ty Sheridan and Mr. U.S.A. give us every opportunity for that cathartic resentment.

Schrader's too old for that shit. He's done with resentment, but not done with dissent. In the end of the day, Schrader is a bold director who is telling stories about America's forgotten by impaling the Military Industrial Complex and highlighting their own internal treason. By even throwing light on the torture programs by the U.S., Schrader is a rebel of our own time. There isn't any other director critiquing the military in this fashion. No wonder he had so many problems financing this film. Oh, that and probably his litany of FB posts.

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