Paul Schrader is on a late-career roll.
Writing the scripts for “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” gets you a free pass for life. As a director, though, Schrader has been more hit and miss. But with 2017’s brilliant “First Reformed” and now “The Card Counter,” he has tapped into something deep and dark — the soul of the nation, maybe, as cliched as that sounds.
But it’s true.
Where “First Reformed,” fueled by Ethan Hawke’s performance, took a roundabout-but-effective route to deal with environmental issues, “The Card Counter” rides Oscar Isaac’s more controlled portrayal of the title character, a gambler who finds not only a measure of control at the tables but also a possible path to redemption, in taking on the American government’s sanctioning of torture.
Isaac’s controlled portrayal of a damaged gambler carries the film
Like Hawke’s priest in “First Reformed,” Isaac’s William Tell — not his real name, and he usually goes by Bill — regularly pours some liquor at night and writes in a diary; as in the earlier film, the voiceover consists of his entries. The two characters can be honest with themselves in a way they can’t be with anyone else.
And they let the audience in on their secrets.
Bill is a gambler. He travels around the country, landing mostly in midwestern towns with casinos where his card-counting skills serve him well, especially in blackjack, which is his preferred game for that reason. The house will tolerate card counters, he explains, even if they win — as long as they don’t win too big.
He’s careful not to. It is a form of control, self-control. He needs it. So Bill is not quite nickel-and-diming his way through life, but winning in something less than enormous fashion. As we know from the first scene, he learned how to count cards in prison.
Military prison, to be precise. Bill was one of the guards at Abu Ghraib, one of those who posed for hideous pictures as they tortured prisoners at the notorious prison in Iraq. The higher-ups weren’t prosecuted, he explains. Only the grunts in the pictures were punished. He took the blame.
Bill knows what he did was wrong, and he tries to get past it. In all of the cheap hotel rooms he checks into — he doesn’t stay in casino hotels, because they might be able to track him — Bill wraps every piece of furniture in white sheets. It’s like a clean room, clean like his conscience is not.
At one casino he wanders into a lecture by Maj. John Gordo (Willem Dafoe, at his weirdest, which is saying something). Gordo is now some sort of consultant. He is the one who trained Bill, saw something in him that Bill didn’t see in himself. Or more likely didn’t want to.
While he’s at the lecture Bill is approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan). That’s Cirk with a C, as he tells everyone. Cirk’s father was also trained by Gordo; eventually his father killed himself, riddled by guilt. Cirk dropped out of college and has ill-formed plans to capture Gordo, torture him and kill him.
Cirk is, for lack of a better way of putting it, messed up. He’s deep in debt, doesn’t speak to his mother and doesn’t know how to process his grief. Bill recognizes this and invites him to accompany him on the road. He’s looking for some kind of absolution for his crimes, something to soothe his shredded conscience, and thinks helping Cirk may be a possibility.
The depictions of Abu Ghraib are as harrowing as any you’ll see
Bill often runs into La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) on the road. She sets up financial arrangements for players who need backers. They dance around a potential relationship for much of the movie, a story line that feels a little out of place, despite a strong performance from Haddish, known for comic roles.
Interspersed throughout are Bill’s dreams and recollections of Abu Ghraib. They are stunning, brutal, surreal, shot with an extreme wide-angle lens that keeps the audience off-balance. The camera moves with speed, heavy metal music blaring — it is as harrowing a depiction of anything as you’ll see. No wonder Bill is haunted. We all should be.
Sheridan’s shaggy portrayal of Cirk juxtaposes perfectly with Isaac’s perfectly controlled, buttoned-down depiction of Bill. Cirk is grasping for whatever he can find to heal himself. Bill, even more damaged, is searching, too. It’s as if he has the emotional information he needs, but can’t access it.
As with “First Reformed,” Schrader crashes right through the boundaries separating the literal from the surreal. It is a strange journey, increasingly so, but an immensely satisfying one. Forgiveness is difficult, forgiving yourself even more so.
‘The Card Counter’ 4.5 stars
Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★
Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★
Director: Paul Schrader.
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe.
Rating: R for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality.
Note: In theaters Sept. 10.
Reach Goodykoontz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk. Subscribe to the weekly movies newsletter.
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