In some ways, Paul Schrader’s 2017 film “First Reformed” felt like the Last Film, with its apocalyptic wrath and resolve. But since the writer/director isn’t dead and doesn’t appear to be ready to retire, what else can he do but keep creating movies? “The Card Counter,” stars Oscar Isaac in the titular role, and Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan as personalities who have a significant impact on the man’s life, is neither a greatest hits package nor a restatement of purpose or beliefs, though it contains aspects of both.
For Schrader, the endless well of inspiration is French director Robert Bresson. He is one of three filmmakers profiled in his thesis-turned-seminal-film-text. Transcendental Film Style: Dreyer, Ozu, Bresson, and the one Schrader almost compulsively imitates. (I’m not saying it as if it’s a negative thing.) Schrader refers to “The Card Counter” as one of his “a man sitting in a room” or “man at a table” films; the figure first appeared in Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest.” That priest was a diarist, and voiceover readings of his remarks bolstered his writings.
Schrader made Travis Bickle a lyric poet and used the same sort of voiceover that “Taxi Driver” director Martin Scorsese augmented with some visual cues from Godard, on whom Bresson was greatly inspired.
Isaac’s “William Tell,” sometimes known as “Will Tell,” is a poker player whose name alludes to both the classic story and every poker player’s Achilles’ heel. (it’s a moniker he’s given himself), keeps a journal in a composition notebook in which he writes perfect cursive writing. He doesn’t start writing, though, until he’s made the hotel room he’s in white with the assistance of sheets he drapes over the furnishings and bed. Will, a traveling poker player, is a guy of discipline. He has a lot of gambling knowledge to share: “Red and black roulette is the only sensible bet.” then he continues, “your chances of winning are over 50%. You win, and you go. If you lose, you simply walk away.”
Will plays for what reason? To keep his head above water. His recollections of his experience at Abu Ghraib as a US Army torturer made him want to die—he recalls that during his time in jail, he goaded another inmate in the hope that guy would murder him—but he lives regardless. He’s searching for an explanation.
Will falls in love with Haddish’s La Linda, a sympathetic poker tour bankroll rep and Sheridan’s Cirk (pronounced “Kirk” but written with a “C,” he informs everyone on introduction), H\He was the son of a war veteran who served with Will and committed suicide as a result of his own guilt. Cirk has a brilliant plan, which he offers Will a piece of kidnaping the military contractor who trained the torturers and got away with it and gives him some of his own. The three characters are an unusual trio, but they are superbly portrayed. The effervescent Haddish underplays with genius, while Sheridan keeps Cirk likable despite his deadly intentions.
Will takes Cirk on the road with him in the hopes of raising enough poker wins to help Cirk out of debt and imparting enough life experience to persuade him to abandon his homicidal quest. This is reminiscent of Travis Bickle’s self-appointed quest to rescuing adolescent prostitute Iris. Will, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with rehabilitating himself. His time at the table is met by melancholy, almost keening songs by Robert Levon Been, the son of Michael Been, the former commander of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and the son of Michael Been, whose equally searching melodies graced Schrader’s beautiful 1994 “Light Sleeper.” (Willem Dafoe, the principal actor in that film, plays the military contractor Cirk is seeking here.)
So, of course, this is a film about much more than poker. More to the point, it has nothing to do with poker at all. That is emphasized by Tell’s decision to walk away. Will plays the game, but he dismisses everything associated with it. To that end, there’s an early nickname joke and Isaac’s defining line reading of “I despise celebrity gambling.” In some ways, this indifference distinguishes this film from other Schrader “man at a table” films. The drug trafficking and consumption of “Light Sleeper” was a significant component in the society of New York City at the time. Thus “American Gigolo” was somewhat involved in researching male prostitution. The environmental worries of the “First Reformed” are more acute than four years ago.
Schrader has a sub-theme with “The Card Counter” that he can cast off like a light cloak and when he does, the film veers into a semi-surreal world reminiscent of the end of “First Reformed.” But then it shifts back into a variant on Bresson, which is one of his most beautiful pictures.
On September 10th, the film will be released exclusively in cinemas.