Always with a sunny disposition, Paul Schrader continues to explore the depravity in human society that he’s been dissecting since Taxi Driver. In examining the taboos of personality that dig deeper beyond mania, Schrader molds a sympathetic figure out of William Tell (Oscar Isaac). A war vet fresh out of prison whose into small-time gambling as a means to survive.
Gambling is simply a distraction Bill uses to block his horrific memories from serving in an Abu Ghraib prison. Subjugating innocent men to physical torture and sexual humiliation, Bill does what he must for his C.O. (Commanding Officer) Gordo, played by Willem Dafoe. Shooting the scenes in prison with a fisheye lens you’d typically see in skateboarding videos, the camera’s movement is unsettling, making you feel dizzy, sick to your stomach. The torture Gordo plans for his prisoners is more about pleasure than getting potential answers. If a fellow soldier suffers trauma from the job, they’re considered too weak for the job by Gordo’s standards.
Oscar Isaac is one of those actors who appears in so many movies it’s almost tiring seeing him. Afraid he might be phoning it in is based on the trailers; I was ecstatic to see Mr. Isaac deliver what may be a career-best performance. If Oscar sounds bored in the previews, it’s intentional. His character is dead inside. Whatever joy may have existed has been snuffed from his time in service and behind bars. Oscar’s lifeless eyes and monotone voice mold the type of broken man you could imagine Bill being.
Supporting Mr. Isac in what may be another career-best, Tye Sheridan’s Cirk made me feel uneasy in the best possible way. Sheridan’s anger is palpable. Cirk’s father served in Abu Grahb with Gordo. You could imagine how he behaved around his family after living through unspeakable subjugation. Aware of Cirk’s plan for vengeance, Bill tries to find a way to change the boy’s mind and help him live a better life. Simultaneously Bill is falling in love with his booker La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). But everything won’t end like a Hollywood film. This is where decades of experience from Schrader’s screenwriting shines.
There’s a classic writing convention that’s my favorite part—the misdirection. When the rug is pulled right out from the protagonist’s feet, we have no idea where the story will head. Everything is usually riding high; then something happens that stops everything. Whether it’s Neo waking up from The Matrix or Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle being toasted, here’s where the protagonist must make a change. That’s the most ringing part of the story because it’s true to life. When everything seems at its best, we are faced with a challenge on an individual level that can either make or destroy us. Schrader opts for destruction with rewards.
When encountering the evils of America, Travis Bickle turns into a psychotic killing machine. Ethan Hawke’s Rev. Ernst Toller spikes his stomach with barbed wire similar to Christ’s crucifixion, expediting his stomach cancer. For his murderous acts, Travis is regarded as a hero. Before he dies, Toller’s secret love Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), passionately kisses him. Both men are rewarded for making the wrong decisions engulfing Schrader’s viewpoint of the world.
The card game is the facade. The poker face is the mask we wear every day. Where torture should go punished in America, its perpetrators are treated like kings. Images of Donald Rumsfeld flash on the screen, reminding the audience never to forget the villains of the world whose deeds went unpunished and died peacefully with blood on their hands. The system is broken. It will never prosecute the genuinely corrupt. Many can live knowing that reality yet cheerfully go about their lives, while others aren’t capable of doing that. Those are the people who can only keep a poker face going for so long until something snaps. In Schrader’s world, his characters either find love or praise after committing destructive acts.
Throughout most of Paul’s filmmaking career, his pictures don’t capture a particular style. With the rise of digital technology, Schrader had the ease of use in its light range and portability to form his distinct aesthetic by mimicking Yasujirō Ozu’s pictures. The camera is stationary almost entirely throughout the film. The takes are long, capturing entire conversations with minimal cutaways or over-the-shoulder shots, letting a scene naturally sync in. Whatever razzle-dazzle you see within a casino from most movies is removed in The Card Counter. Here we visit real casinos lit almost entirely naturally. The ugly carpets with the tacky machines and flat wooden walls pull away from any romanticized image of Vegas we’re accustomed to.
In reality, Schrader uses this method to film his movies because he’s 75, after all. Like Clint Eastwood, Paul Schrader knows that if a script is solid, he doesn’t have to use sweeping camera movements or incremental levels of visual detail to win over the audience. Hats off to him for it. If it works, it works.
What doesn’t work is the third act. Right when Schrader always so wonderfully pulls the switch on my expectations, the picture comes to a screeching halt when it could have continued the momentum. The underwhelming final scene felt too sentimental, below the level of intelligence the picture was going for. Have you seen Flight? How did the ending make you feel? To me, it felt similarly jarring where it doesn’t thematically match the rest of the film. In the end, I was disappointed The Card Counter didn’t go all-in with Shrader’s cynical outlook of the world where some of his best work did. Still, not a bad film by any means to add to his resume.
Do you agree with my rating? L
The Card Counter is only available in theaters now.