The Card Counter

The Card Counter ★★★★

Paul Schrader is back with another "lonely guy that keeps a journal" movie after his 2018 masterpiece First Reformed. Like that film The Card Counter channels his interest in the transcendentalist greats into a modern vessel, less "Diary of a Country Priest" than First Reformed maybe but undeniably Bressonian. The lead is everything in a film this rooted in introspection and Schrader has found an ideal match in Oscar Isaac's chilly exterior. His William Tell is a skilled card player with "modest goals" - travelling from casino to casino to win just enough to make it to the next one. He sleeps in cheap motels away from the casinos and, as we see in a key early scene, strips even those humble lodgings down to their most barren and abstract. This is his form of repentance for actions in his past that shape the film in ways you could not have anticipated based on the marketing. The details of exactly what those actions were suggest an axe to grind for Schrader (plus the absurdity of a rival poker player chanting U-S-A in several scenes) but equally important is the idea of responsibility for one's actions. In Tell's eyes there is no such thing as a good soldier with a bad leader and he's still paying his debt to the universe even if society has stopped watching. I think there's a masterpiece somewhere in here, a film as disciplined as its protagonist that strips the admittedly effective Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan subplots and shows more of Isaac's weary existence. But the messiness here is also what makes it such a rich text and one that I believe will open up with repeat viewings. One of my favorites of the year so far.

Muscala liked these reviews