• Vance Osteen

'The Card Counter' Review

Paul Schrader has always been excluded from any conversation pertaining to the canonical stable of Hollywood Elder Statesmen. Most famous for his collaborations with New Hollywood whiz kid Martin Scorsese – to be fair to Paul, Taxi Driver, their most famous collaboration, functions better as a complete piece when considered within the semiotics of Schrader rather than those of Scorsese – there was always some tool in Schrader’s arsenal that seemed to elude him, barring him from much in the way of mainstream success. The closest thing Schrader ever got to acceptance by the general cinema viewer would be the release of his 2017 film First Reformed, a text whose existence could only stand as a response to the gradual death of the artist’s body. This reading makes his follow-up, The Card Counter, a fascinating study into the frenzied screams of an artist in the throngs of decay. If First Reformed is Schrader examining the rot of the body, then The Card Counter is Schrader, in his own curious way, projecting his own brain death for our amusement.

Starring Oscar Isaac as the gambler William Tell, the film refuses to play out in a way that completely satisfies the fans he made from his apocalyptic 2017 outing, nor does it seek to act as some radical reinvention of purpose on the part of the filmmaker. Schrader seeks to oscillate between these two extremes, painting a portrait of a world bereft of any sort of objective morality. The diegesis reflects a world painted in broad strokes, the muted greys and occasional sanguine reds more effectively giving us a view into William Tell’s neurosis than even the film’s narration. Color only registers at the height of emotional sensation, whether it be the subtle embrace of a lover or the pounding of a fist against blood-stained concrete. The Abu Ghraib sequences are a standout here, though they are, admittedly, quite brief. Schrader’s use of wide-angle lenses here, as well as his integration of what appears to be real footage of torture, works to obfuscate objectivity in the eyes of the viewer. You are William Tell, wallowing in the muck and the mire left behind by battered men. You watch on, entertained. If one were to deconstruct the reasons behind the unprecedented success of Schrader’s last film, one may come to find that, for a film as nihilistic in its worldview as that one was, it never fully implicates the audience in the environmental decay that spurs Toller’s existential descent. The Card Counter does not afford the viewer this luxury, forcing the audience to gaze on as the consequences of the war they supported whole-heartedly play out before them. (The film releasing on the weekend of 9/11 feels appropriately provocative in this context.) We are filth, gleefully partaking in the suffering of another, whether it be through financial or physical ruin.

With The Card Counter, Schrader has ascended into a neo-late period style, recontextualizing his fetishization of the works of Bresson into something wholly obtuse. The film ends on an extended Brechtian torture session that seemingly acts as the apotheosis of Schrader’s entire modus operandi as a film artist. If one were to go into Schrader’s latest hoping to catch another study in detached psychosis, they shall come out feeling underwhelmed. Unlike his contemporaries such as Brian De Palma or Martin Scorsese, a basic empathy for what an audience desires is the component that seems to be missing from the Schrader toolbox. Though he found fleeting success through the prism of A24, Schrader doesn’t care as to whether or not he can continue to ride that trend to the grave. Schrader’s never cared about what an audience wants from him. Schrader hates you almost as much as he hates himself. It’s this fundamental understanding of the artist’s interior drive that acts as the skeleton key to one of the most underrated filmmakers of his generation.