The Card Counter

The Card Counter ★★★★½

Martin Scorsese presents a Paul Schrader picture. Let me say it again: Martin Scorsese presents a Paul Schrader picture. Now if that doesn’t get you excited, we will likely never be friends. Existential character studies may not be for everybody, but they are without doubt my favorite type of picture. I could honestly watch Schrader do a dozen more variations on his man-in-a-room. This happens to be his sixth, and each one has a specific emphasis or thematic. In one word, it’s something like this:

Taxi Driver – Anger
American Gigolo – Narcissism
Light Sleeper – Anxiety
The Walker – Superficiality
First Reformed – Despair
The Card Counter – Guilt

All of these pictures, with the exception of Gigolo and The Walker, also use the doubling device of the diary and voice-over. I say this because they represent Schrader’s vision and aesthetic; I would never say Schrader is repeating himself because each picture is unique and each has a distinct style to match its respective man-in-a-room. He’s given us a character who exists outside of time, whether in 70s Times Square or the unglamorous casinos and churches of today.

In The Card Counter, Schrader uses a genre film to explore real life horrors. There’s a poker player in the picture named Mr. USA, and his name becomes a rallying cry for his fans who chant “USA” over and over again. For Oscar Isaac’s Will Tell (what a name!), it’s a constant reminder of his own guilt, past, self-loathing. He gives an incredible performance, his best to date, with a level of concentration that’s so enormous it could knock you right over. Not since De Niro as the young Vito have I seen an actor bring this kind of concentration and quiet menace to a role. I will see this movie again and again. I liked the first half but loved the second half. And there’s a scene right there in the middle that’s a game changer. Isaac’s man-in-a-room takes Tye Sheridan’s everyman-nobody to a motel and makes him an offer he literally can’t refuse, and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen in picture history. It’s the most frightening thing in the film. (Most of the ‘horrors’ in this one occur off-screen.)

In 2018 Schrader said First Reformed would be a good last film, uncertain if he’d make another. Let me tell you this, The Card Counter would also be a good last film, but here’s hoping Schrader doesn’t retire his man-in-a-room. I’d love to get one or two more. Of course, I’m beyond grateful for the two back to back masterpieces he’s recently given us.

I’ll close my little rant by saying this: At the end of American Gigolo Schrader quotes Bresson’s Pickpocket. At the end of Light Sleeper he quotes himself quoting Bresson. Here he quotes himself quoting himself quoting Bresson. Actually, it’s no longer Bresson’s. If you do something long enough, it’s yours, and Schrader gives us one of his best endings, one of his most transcendental compositions. It’s another Schrader dream-cycle I really dug.

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