Short Cuts: THE CARD COUNTER

“The past effects what happens in the future,” the hero of The Card Counter says, explaining the mathematical and philosophical precepts of a card game. He adds, “Bet little when you don’t have the advantage, bet more when you do.” And with that, and several times over, you can tell that Paul Schrader has found another lonesome figure, like taxi drivers or pickpockets, whose lifestyle can serve as an existential metaphor in the noir and arthouse traditions. Played by a heavy-eyed Oscar Isaac, the card counter’s wisdom is to not believe in a big score. He knows there’s no total victory that can set you up for good. But if you play smart, you can always get by. He has a certain penchant for austerity—he likes to wrap all the furniture in his hotel room in white sheets—and the same could be said for Schrader. The world of the film is established in drawn-out shots, slow camera movements, and a color scheme whose dynamic range tilts toward the ashen end of the spectrum. (Isaac plays blackjack and Texas Hold ‘Em in the least saturated movie casinos I can think of). And this ascetic tone has its purposes. All the better for when hallucinatory elements break through.

This is all very much in the vein of First Reformed, Schrader’s 2018 comeback. And I’m guessing that the somewhat overblown popularity of that film explains why, when the Metrograph hosted an online preview of The Card Counter the night before its theatrical release, the amount of traffic temporarily crashed their website. (No harm—they got it back up and running in short order). Indeed, this wonky but compelling film is largely a retooling of First Reformed, centered on patriotism instead of faith but arriving through the same basic means at the same basic question: what have “we” done—whether “we” is meant to be Christians or Americans—and how can a disillusioned outsider respond to it? If you know First Reformed, simply swap church with country; swap climate change with war crimes; and swap an evangelical charlatan with an obnoxious douchebag in red, white, and blue who keeps chanting “USA!” Most of all, swap Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, which provided most of the plot framework for First Reformed, with the Paul Newman pool hall classic The Hustler, which informs the central metaphor and much of the atmosphere for The Card Counter. (Lest you feel too clever for spotting the similarity yourself, a character will reference it directly, along with Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid). Schrader, with his background as a critic and theorist, seems comfortable with one foot in the medium of other people’s films—in openly using them as a foundation or a departure point for his own visual and thematic expressions. His last two movies are as much the work of a pastiche artist as anything by Tarantino. But where Tarantino generally embodies the hipness of a disaffected age, Schrader aims for its opposite: a philosophical earnestness that’s a welcome anachronism in American movies today.

Still, The Card Counter‘s mixture of cinephile objects, existential tropes, and “contemporary” politics is an uneasy synthesis on the screen. And I put “contemporary” in quotes because the film’s political centerpiece—the abuses at Abu Ghraib—arrives at least ten years behind the conversation in our unsettled parade of national shames. Isaac’s card counter had been posted there during the Iraq War, and after the scandal broke, he was sent to prison as a scapegoat for the ranking officer. The plot kicks into gear when he meets a young man (Tye Sheridan) with whom he has a shared connection to the past. After Sheridan proposes that the two of them get revenge, Isaac sets out guide him to a more enduring kind of peace.

If you’re looking for cohesion, you won’t find it on the dramaturgical level. The Tye Sheridan thread is so much less convincing than the Hustler redux that it keeps playing like a detour even though it’s technically the main dish. The dynamics of its revenge plot simply don’t feel natural. Nor does Tiffany Hadish’s against-type performance as a potential love interest. Nor does the logic that ushers in a bloody climax. Nor, in fact, do most of the references to our political present. Topical issues alluded to in the film—not just torture, but the opioid epidemic and the student debt crisis—are so thinly drawn that they don’t evoke a lived experience so much as the dismayed reading of headlines from afar. But while it may be hell on some scenes, I’m not convinced that a degree of removal is necessarily wrong for the film’s identity. Wherever else it places in the cinematic year of 2021, The Card Counter could make a vital element in the study of how unreconstructed New Hollywood provocation has become as much of an old-soul movie as anything Ford or Hawks were making in their autumn years.

So if you take a chance on The Card Counter—and I’d recommend doing so—note what signifies as something more than a screenwriter’s fancy or a film buff’s homage. The quasi-religious desire to give up on anger. The sacred-profane connection between spiritual desolation and carnal release. The reminder that gambling is the eternal metaphor for American life. The decline-of-cinema urge to revisit old classics but add your own twist. And last but certainly not least, the search for emotional notes where austerity might lead into overwhelming color. From its subtler strengths to its thumping symbolism—including a final shot ripped from either Bresson’s Pickpocket or the Sistine Chapel (possibly both)—that commitment is never betrayed, even when it makes you shake your head. Pastiche or not, it doesn’t feel overly familiar or safely hidden behind its influences. On the contrary, when its craft and passion align, it’s almost uncomfortably private.

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The Card Counter is in theaters and now available to rent on iTunes. Cheers to the Metrograph for their sneak preview—something is so befitting of the film to feel like you’ve attended an event without even leaving your apartment.

Short Cuts: THE SUICIDE SQUAD

As someone whose day job involves sorting out movie metadata, I consider taking a movie called Suicide Squad and making a direct sequel called The Suicide Squad to be something of a personal broadside. But then, I’m not sure that the use of a definite article in a blockbuster title has ever been so loaded. 2016’s Suicide Squad was panned by critics, widely mocked on the internet, disowned by its director, and made a boatload of cash. Clearly, a bankable idea was in need of a reset. So the “the” can be read as a tweak on canonicity: it’s a way of saying forget that one, here’s this one. It’s also a chance for DC to poach a director who was (temporarily) fired by Marvel over a Twitter PR scandal and give him the freedom of an R-rating. “From the horribly beautiful mind of James Gunn” trumpeted the red-band trailer, promising yucks, bad taste, weirdness, blood—and authorship, at a time when the existence of authorship in these franchises is worth debating.

If much of what’s added by “the horribly beautiful mind of James Gunn” is irreverent banter and gore, I could honestly take or leave both. Gunn’s all-in commitment to banter is a stumbling block as often as a lubricant, and I’ve long since lost enough innocence for incongruent splatter in a family-friendly genre to feel subversive. Besides, the basic schema—wisecracking chaotic-neutral misfits save the day, but don’t sound or act like “serious” heroes—is no longer a rebuke to formula, if it ever was, but a formula of its own. (Gunn has his own hits to pillage from, and he will). So if The Suicide Squad stands out as one of the most satisfying blockbusters to come along this year, where it deserves praise is not subversion but the fundamentals. This is a tight, cohesive story that grabs the eye, moves fast, builds stakes, has engaging human presences, makes its share of distinct aesthetic choices, and does indeed feel like it’s got an individual consciousness swaying it—more than most Marvel movies, in fact, including Gunn’s. And it may be that his real contribution at the blockbuster level is showing that if those fundamentals are in place, the actual specifics have an elastic leeway to be just about anything. Like “The Polka Dot Man”, a DC character Gunn seems drawn to purely because it sounds like such an uncool idea. Or a climactic monster whose visual conceptualization owes less to the state-of-the-art King Kong reboot than an old kaiju matinee quickie.

As it passes through theaters and HBO Max, the film has occasioned two sidenotes. First, that it’s been considered something of a financial disappointment, which is of interest principally because definitions of success are fluid when a $185 million movie can go right to an SVOD service while theaters face a public health crisis.

And second, there’s been ink spilled over whether the film is a critique of American imperialism—a critique which, by circumstance, arrived just before the US’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the 20-year emotional reckoning that it entailed. That reading is plenty apparent on the surface: an elite military squad is sent by the government to aid in a coup, only they learn the extent of US wrongdoing, and it all reaches a climactic battle between one soldier who feels betrayed by his country and one who stands by it, right or wrong. But you don’t have to look hard to see paradoxes. You could start with the fact that the film plays a lot of local deaths for laughs. Or that it transparently pulls its punches by having the US intelligence apparatus save the day. Or that in general, “our” interests are central while “theirs” are background. So any political critique it offers is likely to only hold up for a younger audience to whom a challenge of triumphalist narratives is new. Which, if that was the goal, is not to knock the film (at least not too much). Teens all start somewhere. But I’m not sure, in 2021, how many young triumphalists are left.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Suicide Squad recently finished its run on HBO Max and is still in theaters. Jared Leto died on the way back to his home planet.

Short Cuts: PIG

In 2021, Nicolas Cage is more meme than movie star, and more of either than the serious actor he’s long since proven himself capable of being. So it makes sense that when word of Pig first reached me (via an office chatroom), it was as a kind of bonkers genre film: a thriller with a premise so left-field you had to see it to just understand why it was made. It’s Taken, but with a truffle pig instead of a kidnapped daughter? And a mountain-man Nicolas Cage tracing a path of vengeance? How could you look at the trailer, which climaxes on Cage asking “who has my pig?” with grim determination, and not sense/fear that some virus of internet-savvy irony is being catered to?

Happy news, then, that Pig is a deeply unironic film. Absurd, yes, but unironic—and a welcome reminder of how the two can be combined. Cage’s status as a camp figure in the age of GIFs can be chalked up, by my count, to at least four factors. First, a certain interplay of star power and chameleonism; no matter what wig, beard, or accent he’s under, he signifies primarily as Nicolas Cage. Second, that he projects a kind of natural softness that can be at odds with whatever action hero or hardened badass he’s asked to play. Third, that he’s unafraid of an emotive, even over-the-top commitment to outlandish material. And fourth, that the outlandish material he’s been in for the last two decades (action, horror, thriller, etc.) has tended to not be very serious—and has dovetailed with suitably outlandish tabloid stories (something about IRS problems and a private island?).

Pig, whether by intent or happenstance, either addresses, inverts, or willfully dodges all of the above. Cage plays a reclusive Oregon truffle hunter who, after his beloved pet pig is stolen, must descend into Portland’s restaurant underworld (complete with a fight club) and reckon with his past—a past that turns out to be less the stuff of thrillers than what we might call “the human condition.” It calls on Cage to be understated, and he delivers: even in scenes where every other emotion or situation feels simulated, his commitment to stoic pain is the film’s grounding force. There are even times, amidst all this talk of having once been somebody, of wanting to stay true to your craft, and of coping with an industry that’s changed beyond recognition, where you sense that the filmmakers are thinking of something closer to home than kidnapped pigs.

The result, directed by Michael Sarnoski (in his feature film debut) and co-produced by Cage himself, is a slack but endearing indie. Padded in a few too many contemporary minimalist mannerisms, it’s not much more than a curio of 2021, and I doubt it will still be here in 2022. But its pondering of obsolescence in a cutthroat business finds passages that are both soulful and playful, and it refuses to become a bonkers genre film at precisely the moment when that direction would be most natural. And so it is an oddball exercise in what remains of the star system. It needs an action star so it can avoid being an action movie. It needs a camp figure in order to have gravitas. It needs a known quantity so it can feel random. And most of all, it needs a terrific actor whose brand has strayed from terrific acting. In which case, dropping a stone-faced trailer that’s both perfectly honest and sounds like a put-on is wholly appropriate. It’s practically a movie to let a meme become a man.

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Pig is now available to rent on iTunes and Amazon. It’s released by Neon, which is A24 for insomniacs.