Paul Schrader is a true veteran of the film business, but makes a specific kind of films that not everyone will like. His films are well made but sometimes come across as rather cold. With his latest, The Card Counter , which we saw at Film Fest Gent, that is just interesting. Especially because Oscar Isaac adds enough humanity.
William Tell ( Oscar Isaac , Dune ) likes routine and control. Whether this has always been the case is not immediately clear, but his recent whereabouts certainly contributed to it. He just got out of jail. He has no lavish plans. Tell moves to a casino, where he earns money by counting cards and cheating at poker. He earns his living so well, but doesn’t throw the money through windows and doors. After the game, he goes to a motel, where he covers all the furniture with sheets and then writes down his day in a notebook. And so it goes every day.
And then suddenly a number of things disturb his relative calm. His success is noticed by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a real estate agent for poker players. William can earn even more through sponsorship, but he holds off until he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan). The young man has a link with Tell’s past as a soldier: his father served in Iraq together with Tell.
That time haunts them both again when they run into Tell’s former commander Gordo (Willem Dafoe). He accepts La Linda’s offer, and the trio seems set off on a successful journey. But of course it is not so simple with Paul Schrader.
With First Reformed , Schrader wanted to draw attention to spirituality and climate change. With The Card Counter he clearly has something to say about the role of defense and the military in his country. And by extension, the position that the United States has had in world history as a result. But even more it affects the men and women who fight for their country, because many do not quite understand what they are getting into and what such an experience will do to them.
We see what Tell went through in Iraq and how he partly lost himself. Yet he had to answer for his actions. In prison he found himself again, and that compulsion for control has become his foothold. It is therefore not easy for him to let people into his life again, but he does it anyway with Cirk and especially La Linda. Because surprisingly, The Card Counter also contains some really romantic scenes. Oscar Isaac’s low-key rendition revives a bit when La Linda is around, and their date in an illuminated botanical garden is a beautiful, soft interlude.
The rest of the film can be called very meticulous, just like Tell himself. But he too has his limits, and both character and actor choose their moments to take advantage of. Isaac carries the film in its entirety. The Card Counter might not have been so successful if there wasn’t a contrast between his velvety voice in the voiceovers and his sometimes cold expressions.
Schrader also uses the camera to reinforce those choices. Structured, symmetrical shots, angles with depth and an astonishing fisheye perspective for scenes that feel like a nightmare—all contribute to the film’s uneasiness but intriguing atmosphere. And then we haven’t said anything about the melancholy 80s synth music. This surprising combination makes The Card Counter a very fascinating film.