Paul Schrader’s first book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1972), praised a style of film-making that “stylises reality by eliminating (or nearly eliminating) those elements which are primarily expressive of human experience, thereby robbing the conventional interpretations of reality of their relevance and power”.
It’s a style that has, increasingly, come to define his own work. There are consistent echoes of Bresson’s Pickpocket and A Man Escaped in Schrader’s screenplay for Taxi Driver, as well as his own directorial output: notably in Light Sleeper, American Gigolo, The Walker and, most recently, First Reformed.
If First Reformed mined Schrader’s own religious sense of guilt – he was raised in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church and did not see his first film until he was 17 – The Card Counter pivots around a less theologically rooted sense of moral failure.
This is a political film. An obnoxious Ukrainian emigrant who has styled himself “Mr USA” lurks around the margins. A war criminal classified as a private contractor who committed appalling atrocities at black ops sites has evaded censure and subsequently made a fortune. American imperialism is never mentioned per se, and yet it wreaks havoc throughout this compelling drama.
Oscar Isaac, seldom better, plays William Tell, formerly Private First Class William Tillich, a military interrogator who has committed war crimes in the Middle East. Sentenced to military prison – while his superiors, including Willem Dafoe’s Maj John Gordo, go free – he teaches himself to count cards and emerges as one of the best poker players in the world.
He finds connection and a kind of surrogate family in business manager La Linda (a revelatory turn from Tiffany Haddish) and Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a teenager who seeks William out after his father, a fellow soldier who also participated in “enhanced interrogation techniques”, commits suicide.
The Card Counter – executive produced by Martin Scorsese – revisits Schrader’s twin preoccupations with despair and salvation, powered along by tart political urgency, a magnetic central performance from Isaac, and no little style.
There’s a terrific soundtrack featuring original songs composed for the movie by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Robert Levon Been. There are marvellous cinematic flourishes – including a neon-lit stroll through an illuminated Missouri Botanical Garden and a nightmarish traipse through Abu Ghraib – as the film works its way toward a secular, violent redemption.
Every minute is a marvel.