The Card Counter

The Card Counter ★★★★

Rosenbaum once blisteringly critiqued the discrepancy between Schrader's interests in "transcendental cinema" as a critic and the often bullish, stylized and antic violence of his own moviemaking. Yet with First Reformed and now this he has really embraced his inner Bressonian to a degree heretofore unseen. Obviously occupying space along the same spectrum as his scripts for Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead, The Card Counter is a film wracked with both rage and guilt, studiously avoiding giving a meaningful out beyond the possibility of a kind of grace you can't consciously obtain.

Schrader's cantankerousness and willingness to ask impolite questions typically just gets him into trouble on Facebook, but here he puts that energy to great use by cutting the legs out from underneath the "shoot 'n cry" genre of American war cinema. Bill is haunted by what he did in Iraq, but the focus of the film is not on the tragedy of good Americans being driven to horror and trauma. In fact, Bill himself rejects the hollow comfort of self-pity or liberal apologia, and Schrader makes maybe the first American film to confidently assert that "hate the war but support the troops" is nothing but a self-assuaging fantasy that allows us to completely depersonalize the responsibilities of our shares of the blame.

At first the juxtaposition with poker didn't quite click, though eventually it sank in that it was less about Bill's card sharp skills and more about the comfort provided by casinos where there are no windows and no way to tell time's passage and that there's something oddly prison-like about buildings in which everything is constantly blinking and whistling because all of it is in service of keeping you away from the outside world. And after years of films trying to make the act of playing cards look like the damn motherfucking coolest shit on Earth, man, it's refreshing to see a movie capture the actual vibe of competitive gambling: a bunch of tables akwardly jammed together in a conference room where a rogues gallery of weirdos gamble with fake money because the only reason anyone cares is that people watching really think that each chip is worth at least $10,000.