By Bradley Lane
Paul Schrader, as a writer and director, has a trope of focusing on characters outside of the mainstream of their culture. People with darkness inside of them, hidden behind their work, coined by the first film to feature this trope as, “God’s lonely man.” In First Reformed it was a priest, in Mishima it was a poet and now, in The Card Counter, Oscar Isaac plays a professional poker player. For Schrader it’s a natural fit because as a professional bluffer, Isaac’s character is always hiding and trying to gauge the intentions of others around him. However, what’s strikingly different about The Card Counter is the main character’s resistance toward his dark past overtaking his life. It’s a welcome variance in the Schrader formula that makes for another satisfying addition to Schrader’s lonely man canon.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a character who survives through routine. The first lines of dialogue in the film are explaining how well Tell adjusted to incarceration. Giving his life rhythm and structure gave him stability after a history of horrors threatens to constantly overtake his mind. Hiding away as a small-time poker player, his routine quickly becomes disrupted by a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) seeking revenge on behalf of his father and in turn Tell as well. Tell believes that he can find absolution in convincing Cirk to drop his quest for revenge, while Cirk believes he can tap into Tell’s trauma to convince him to aid in his violent ambitions.
Schrader’s strengths have always lied in theme and tone, and this film is no exception. Each scene oozes with a quiet tension between William Tell and the world around him. This tension becomes explicit as Tell’s past is revealed to the audience and it becomes clear that he could never comfortably exist side by side with everyday people.
The filmography of Paul Schrader has always been indebted to the great formalists of arthouse cinema like Ozu and Dryer, but especially here Schrader is channeling Robert Bresson. Interpolating scenes from his seminal work Pickpocket, and beautifully borrowing his tight camerawork, The Card Counter is a decidedly slow but intentionally paced film.
Unfortunately, despite the film working at a macro level, the film does suffer moment to moment. Some dialogue can seem unbalanced or tonally at odds, but ultimately this doesn’t account for much of the runtime. As one of my favorite filmmakers ever, Schrader has constructed a genre all his own and The Card Counter is a worthy addition to his already legendary career. The Card Counter is one of the best films of the year and is now available to rent on all Video On-Demand services. – 4/5 stars