He’s the one-time Hollywood enfant terrible who’s directed nearly 30 films but chances are Paul Schrader always be most associated with two writing gigs from his early days. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Legendary films both, yet they dominate a career that also includes American Gigolo, The Walker and First Reformed, all of which he both wrote and directed. And his latest, The Card Counter, is a powerful addition to the list.
Gambler William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a walking enigma. His anonymous grey style and impassive face disguise a dark past, one that involves prison and harrowing army service. Now he lives a solitary, almost sterile, life doing the one thing he’s interested in – playing cards. But when Cirk (Tye Sheridan) asks him for help in taking revenge on a retired military officer, Tell sees helping him as a chance for some personal redemption. As the two travel from game to game in a poker series, that redemption always seems to be at arm’s length and the gambler finds he’s increasingly being taken back to the murkiness of his past.
Redemption is familiar territory for Schrader. In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke’s priest sought to ease his guilt over his past life by embracing environmentalism. The past similarly torments Tell, even if his exterior gives nothing away to anybody, let alone his opponents at the card table. His horrific history is branded indelibly on his mind: his military service involved time as an interrogator at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and all that it entailed. The living nightmare for detainees and soldiers alike is portrayed through the warped angles of an ever-mobile fisheye lens, never stopping for a second to focus on anything in particular but creating a canvas of filth, brain destroying noise and torture that is straight out of Dante. It’s no wonder that the regime and comparative order of prison life was more to Tell’s taste – even if it fuelled his self-loathing – or that the opportunity to redeem himself, in his own eyes, by helping Cirk has a powerful appeal. But things are never that simple.
Alongside those disturbing images from the past, Schrader and his recent cinematographer of choice Alexander Dynan (First Reformed, Dog Eat Dog) create a second nightmare, one of garish uniformity and sterility. All the hotels and casinos hosting the poker tournament look exactly the same – the same uniforms, the same neon lights, the same airless atmosphere. And the same people, all starting out with high hopes of winning but knowing that only a handful of them will make it to the final showdown. The despair that permeated the dance marathons of They Shoot Horses Don’t They is barely below the surface. For Isaac’s Tell, however, it means he can dissolve into the crowd, only emerging when he needs to play his winning hand. It’s a superb piece of acting, full of world-weariness, discipline but with feelings that slowly start to emerge as the story unfolds. Tiffany Haddish’s talent spotter who becomes his “manager” finds this out for herself, in a performance that give what is essentially the love interest role some real depth and showing there’s more to her than simply comedy roles.
The Card Counter is a compelling watch. It’s never comfortable – this is Schrader, after all – but it has an urgent power that makes it not just a riveting but something approaching the hypnotic. Except you don’t realise it until the very end when it releases its grip.
Thriller, Drama | Cert:15 | Universal | Cinemas | 5 November 2021 | Dir. Paul Schrader | Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish, Willem Dafoe.