Thursday 25 November 2021

Solitaire: "The Card Counter"

Schrader gonna schrade. At some point in the near-future, one might have cause to report that Paul Schrader, screenwriter of
Taxi Driver and director of American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and Affliction, has made the surprise choice to follow up his last rigorous parable of male obsession with a goofy romp about mismatched lovers. But not today, not now: The Card Counter, Schrader's immediate follow-up to 2018's comeback special First Reformed, offers a characteristically terse study of a former Abu Ghraib prison guard attempting to turn a new leaf on the pro gambling circuit. Where Ethan Hawke's priest in that earlier film was bound by religious dogma, Oscar Isaac's troubled cardsharp William Tell here operates by a strict set of self-imposed rules. Play with low stakes, the easier to walk away whenever the deck is stacked against you. Keep a safe distance from your fellow travellers, for reasons that become apparent over the course of the film. And carry your own sheets to tie down over the fittings in the motel rooms you pass through, no matter that this appears just about the fiddliest thing on God's once-green Earth. For a loner like Tell, other people open up the prospect of contamination, which leaves him newly jittery when the universe offers him two new lines of communication. The first and healthiest is with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a player-turned-agent who offers this deeply solitary figure the prospect of a future, both professionally and romantically. The other, a far riskier bet, is with Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man hellbent on taking down the Army vet he believes was responsible for his father's suicide. The kid sets our hero's obsession in sharp relief - and Tell comes to believe he can snap this lad out of it - but he also stirs up some residual trauma. That's the trouble with relationships - they cut both ways. Bide your time and hold back, and you can still suddenly find yourself all in.

What follows is a film of violent collisions, though they're less apparent on camera than inscribed into the film's own form, its very being. On one hand, The Card Counter plays like an R-rated version of those gambling capers Schrader grew up watching. (1965's The Cincinnati Kid, arguably the most accomplished of these, gets a namecheck in passing.) We get the expected lessons in player psychology and poker table etiquette, but the casinos Schrader's characters ghost through are humdrum, mid-range, fundamentally anonymous, less interesting to the filmmaker than the personalities they seem to attract. What overt stylisation there is here has been reserved for the Abu Ghraib flashbacks, which have been shot with a roving camera-fisheye lens combo that makes the atrocities depicted therein bulge, warp and leap out at the onlooker. (We are a long way from the cautious tastefulness of those late-Noughties movies in which the Hollywood studio system sought to relitigate the ongoing War on Terror. These atrocities are almost literally in your face.) The stitching, however, remains recognisably Schraderian: boxy close-ups of conflicted faces, overhead shots of the protagonist journalling, a means of justifying the unusual amount of voiceover. The structure, too, is of a piece with what's gone before. Schrader introduces his players, notes their quirks, and then leaves the plot on a low simmer until the poker tour arrives in the neighbourhood of Willem Dafoe's gung-ho general Gordo, source of Sheridan's ire and Isaac's regrets. By Schrader's exacting standards, however, there's a certain degree of lassitude in the mix: we're basically going around the circuit for just shy of two hours, albeit in some pretty good company.

On paper, Haddish isn't quite right for this role - it cries out for a slicker, more assured dramatic actress - but the way she looks at Isaac (as if she just wants to eat him up) proves oddly affecting, especially whenever our hero starts to pull away again; at the very least, the romantic subplot occasions the kind of collision the movies wouldn't have thought to orchestrate even five years ago, so there's a freshness about these scenes. Sheridan is stuck playing a tousle-haired blank, partly by design - he's the timebomb the grown-ups are unknowingly porting around among their baggage - but he assumes growing symbolic value as a representative of that part of America that simply never learns. (Everything in this performance is geared towards eliciting that morbid seven-word catchphrase of the nightly news: "He was always such a quiet boy.") If these two seem a touch underdirected, it's because Schrader appears far less interested in their characters than he is in his onscreen surrogate, or that he's only interested in how these characters relate to his standoffish protagonist. Isaac, certainly, has the steely self-control down pat, and the intelligence to convey the many reasons a man might retreat from a world as volatile and brutal as this; this is the lead role this particular actor was surely waiting for while he cashed those big franchise cheques. Yet the dramatic stakes still feel... well, not low, exactly, but manageable. In First Reformed, both the protagonist and the audience were presented with no less a prospect than the end of the world entire; we could never be certain how bad things were going to get, even at the moment Hawke's priest began wrapping his body in barbed wire. The Card Counter is a vastly more self-contained proposition: the characters lay out their cards, we spy what's coming down the river (maybe before Bill Tell does), before everything plays out and a neat (too neat?) closing image puts this story to bed. Good Schrader rather than great Schrader, then - but even good Schrader turns out to be more absorbing and adult than anything else around.

The Card Counter is now playing in selected cinemas.

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