Paul Schrader makes films about souls lost in torment and unreachable goals, the kind of grim existential purgatories that speak of our own most unpleasant moments. Before the Venice press screening of his latest production, a makeshift security cordon causes more than 100 guests to show up late, after which they are only allowed to enter the cinema in small, monotonous haggling, a tense and messy progress that runs through the first half of the movie. hour. The critics are in an uproar; ushers get lairy. Wherever he is, I imagine Schrader himself would approve of the show.
On screen, The Card Counter offers another graceful and slow tale of Schrader’s lone samurai, a figure who can appear in all walks of life: as a taxi driver, escort, drug dealer, priest. On this occasion he is embodied by a blank-eyed Oscar Isaac, who wears his worn leather jacket like a bulletproof vest. William Tell (formerly Tillich) is an Abu Ghraib veteran and served eight years for his crimes. Now he makes a living at the card game tables and roulette wheels of the central United States. The film shows him driving through shopping malls at night or prowling the Stygian bowels of interchangeable casinos, with their patterned carpets and heavy black curtains. These joints have lights on everywhere and yet they are always shrouded in shadow. Players, you worry, bring the darkness with them.
Tell has an agent, La Linda (played by comedian Tiffany Haddish) who wants to find him a sponsor and put him on the world series, but that’s too much of a commitment, I’d rather go it alone. “Poker,” he tells us, “is about waiting. Hours pass. Days go by. And then something happens. “
One night at the hotel bar, Tell meets the excitable young Cirk (Tye Sheridan). Cirk is on the trail of Major John Gordon (Willem Dafoe), a former private contractor in Abu Ghraib who has since made a fortune whipping security software. Gordon, we found out, overcame the blame for his crime and we let the little ones bear the blame. Cirk wants revenge. Think maybe Tell will too.
Schrader conducts with the leisurely air of a man who has told some variation of this story many times before. The core relationships can be a bit sketchy, while the plot goes in and out of plausibility. Still, the cast remains honest and there’s a lot to enjoy in the film’s meditative and moody intensity. At its best, The Card Counter is wonderfully retro, like old-fashioned noir. In an earlier era, with some narrative adjustments, the role of William Tell could have been played by a grunting Humphrey Bogart or a frigid Alain Delon.
It almost goes without saying that Cirk and Tell’s plan is ridiculously implausible. This is a tranquilizer gun and poison darts bought online. But Schrader’s heroes are rarely set for success. They ignore common sense and avoid the exit ramps in their path, moving slowly and inexorably towards the edge of the cliff. The principal lines them up and lets them go, like an evil professor firing his last generation of graduates. You have done this before and will do it again. His supply of bloody fools seems almost inexhaustible.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism