Paul Schrader’s 2017 “First Reformed” generates apocalyptic fury and determination that seems, in some ways, like The Last Film. But the writer/director isn’t dead or seems ready to retire, so what’s he going to do besides keep making movies? This one, “The Card Counter,” which stars Oscar Isaac in the title role and features Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan as characters who profoundly influence the man’s life, is neither a greatest hits package nor a restatement of purpose or principle, although it has elements of both.
For Schrader, French filmmaker Robert Bresson is an inexhaustible resource. He is one of three filmmakers treated in his thesis-turned-film-text-transcendental Style In Film: Dreyer, Ozu, Bresson and the one and only bed Schrader of the almost obsessive. (I’m not saying it’s such a bad thing, to be honest.) Schrader calls “The Card Counter” one of the “man sitting in the room” or “man at the desk” films; the man was from Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest.” The pastor was a diary, and his writings were amplified by words read out in voiceover. Schrader made Travis Bickle a diary, and dictated the same kind of voiceover, which “Taxi Driver” director Martin Scorsese backed up with some visual cues from Godard, who was heavily influenced by Bresson himself.
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In “The Card Counter” Isaac “William Tell,” also known as “Will Tell,” and whose name alludes to both the classic fable and the Achilles’ heel every poker player (that’s the name he gave himself) keeps a diary in a book. composition notes where he wrote a neat cursive script. He didn’t start writing, until he turned whatever motel room he was in white, with the help of the sheets he put on the furniture and the bed. A traveling poker player, Will is a disciplined man. He has a lot of gambling wisdom to convey: “Red and black roulette is the only smart bet.” Because, he continued, your chances of winning are almost 50 percent. “You win, you go. You lose, you go.”
Why is Will playing? To hold himself together. time in prison he pushed other inmates in the hope that people would kill him—but he lived. . He’s looking for an excuse.
the son of a veterinarian. the military who served with Will and whose guilt forced him to commit suicide. The three characters are a whimsical trio, beautifully played. An excited Haddish plays with brilliance, while Sheridan makes Cirk earnestly attractive regardless of his murderous intent.
Will takes Cirk on the road with him, hoping to amass enough poker winnings to free Cirk from debt, and to provide enough life experience to convince him to give up his deadly crusade. It has echoes of Travis Bickle’s self-appointed mission to save teenage prostitute Iris. But Will primarily wants to redeem himself. His time at the table is accompanied by somber and almost touching tunes by Robert Levon Been, former leader of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and son of Michael Been, whose similar quest songs graced Schrader’s splendid 1994 “Light Sleeper.” (The film’s lead actor, Willem Dafoe, here plays the military contractor Cirk wants.)
So this is a movie that, of course, is more than just poker. More importantly, it’s not about poker at all. It was underlined when Tell decided to leave. Games are the thing Will does, but he ignores everything to do with it. To that end, there’s a funny nickname joke right from the start and Isaac’s definitive reading of “I hate celebrity gambling.” In a sense this disinterest provides the main difference between this and Schrader’s other “man at a table” films. The “American gigolo” is presumably invested in exploring male prostitution; drug trafficking and consumption of “Light Sleepers” were key factors of New York City culture at the time. “First Reformed” environmental concerns are hotter than four years ago.
With “The Card Counter,” Schrader has sub-themes that he can throw like sheer cloaks, and when he does, the film veers into a semi-surreal realm not entirely dissimilar to the climax of “First Reformed.” But then turned back to variation on Bresson which was one of the brightest shots of his career.
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