“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 by now, 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.
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.