From the daring director Paul Schrader (“First Reformed”) and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, “The Card Counter” is another provocative journey into the realm of guilt and masochism. The film ticks off the trademarks of the iconic director: self-loathing, asceticism and suffering are all here once more. But Schrader has an immediacy and flair combined with a strange percussive melancholy that makes him infinitely watchable.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a former military guard at Abu Ghraib who was sent to Leavenworth for war crimes. During his incarceration, Tell becomes an expert at poker, probability and card counting. He bets relatively small so as not to attract attention. Tell floats from city to city to city, from convention to convention like a polyester ghost. This is life.
Partly through voiceover as in “Taxi Driver” (a Schrader screenplay) one learns that the guard is full of phobia and apprehension, though causes are unclear. Tell is polite and amiable in public, but outside the casino, in private, the man is stiff and remote. He covers the furniture in his room with a stiff white cloth, binding each fold with rough twine that resembles barbed wire. Each day, Tell transforms into the artist Christo with a Crown of Thorns.
Tell catches the eye of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who proposes to work with him fronting money. Tell gives a muddled reply.
Later at a surveillance convention after a game, Tell meets a lugubrious young man (Tye Sheridan) who tells him to give him a call if he remembers the man on stage, a Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe).
Tell then returns to his odd white motel room and begins to write.
The next day, Tell calls the stranger, who informs Tell that Gordo deserves to be tortured and killed for his heinous actions at Abu Ghraib that have warped Tell’s mind and caused the suicide of the man’s own father. Tell is quietly shocked and robotically changes the subject.
Tell wants to ignore the young man but he cannot bring himself to dismiss the pale lethargic figure who lurks about.
Though this is familiar territory for the director, who has explored the depths of vexing regret in all of his previous films (“Hardcore,” the script of “Taxi Driver” and “First Reformed”) few directors carry such emotions with tangible punches.
At times it is a nervous experience to look into the eyes of Bill Tell and find only a loneliness within.
The exterior lights of Vegas are eye-popping and florescent but the light they transmit is only of the alien kind—they deliver no hope or promise of home.
La Linda is shown frequently at a distance with black polished sunglasses, her strong legs glisten like pistons from some feminine machine. A kind of relationship ensues but Tell’s advances are awkward and hard, his kisses loud and sucking.
There are scenes of Abu Ghraib as if from a convex lens. Gordo and Tell appear as military dwarves hideously clubbing scream-stained bodies in shit and muck.
The physical body is something to be feared and disgusted with as well as desired. When Tell drapes his motel room in white it’s as if he wants to remove himself from all physical contact from external objects. He sleeps in his clothes.
In one scene, Tell recoils from the leaping arms of an obnoxious man who is decked out in a stars and stripes uniform. The gaudiness of showy patriotism is repugnant to him. But in addition, his loud shouts of USA might also spread a future virus. The righteous anger of Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” is now transferred to Will Tell.
There is a respite from this purgatory in a date with La Linda in a lighted flower garden but the neon Shangri-La suddenly becomes a confining maze. The paradise of neon blossoms slowly merge into a visual dirge of uniform human heads in on a casino floor.
The film’s final scene showing Tell’s finger touching La Linda’s sensual, manicured finger between a Plexiglas wall speaks to our longing for intimate contact during Covid-19 as well as giving a surreal reference to Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi (or more explicitly) Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.
Is Schrader calling for the beginning of a new cinema?
Paul Schrader remains one of our greatest poets of detachment and unease.
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