by Jacob Beeson
Paul Schrader’s follow-up to First Reformed (2018), one of 2018’s best, is finally here and offers a laughable credit of what might be the most executive producers credited for a single film of all time. Schrader often writes characters that have some past trauma that has a major influence on their presently troubled lives that The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey and Chris Ryan have coined as the “Prestige Dirtbag”. The Card Counter is no different in its focus but unlike a lot of films that explore this type of character in profound ways, Schrader once again sees this in a very understated manner.
Schrader’s protagonist turned anti-hero, William Tell (Oscar Isaac), is extremely understated, only coming to life in intensely emotional moments. The film’s production design reflects a lot of Isaac’s character with lots of muted colors, a lot of which are grays and whites, and monochromatic color palettes for sequences. There isn’t a lot of variety in the colors put on screen in a singular moment, much like William, but also reflect the ugliness of casino’s. Much of the film, which was shot by cinematographer Alexander Dynan, is actually pretty ugly because it doesn’t deter from how a casino looks and feels. There are a lot of harsh shadows and harsh brights that isn’t designed in any artistic way that puts you right into the action of the film.
What hurts this immersion is Schrader’s rushed attempt to lay the ground work for how various poker games work. I don’t play card games hardly ever and I could pick things out here and there, but Isaac’s narration is far too quick to understand the games being played, thus taking away any of the stakes in any of the games William plays. Schrader smartly doesn’t always rely on the stakes of the games for most of the film though; instead, Schrader focuses on the newly formed relationship between William and Cirk (Tye Sheridan). Cirk’s desire to torture and kill his father’s and William’s former commanding officer, John Gordo (Willem Defoe) is deeply disturbing right off the bat. William’s immediate action, with an initial hesitation, to help Cirk and set him on a better path propels the story forward into interesting topics that might be too taboo or frightening for the every-man to think about.
William thankfully has another relationship to develop throughout with his stable runner, La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). There’s nothing particularly fascinating about La Linda or how she impacts the rest of the film besides putting up the money for William to continue playing at World Series of Poker games. Casting Haddish is an interesting choice as she’s far from the obvious choice to be in a film like this or for this role, but she holds her own and has really good chemistry with Oscar Isaac. In fact, there are a ton of interesting choices that have bold payoffs, such as the wide angle lens photography and 360-degree photography of the prison William used to work at.
The scenes within the torturous prison William worked at in his youth will most certainly be the most unique image you’ll have ever seen put on screen. It takes some time to get adjusted to but once you do, you’ll wonder if films will continue to utilize this visual style because it’s so effective. It’s reminiscent of the gritty look and feel of Taxi Driver (1976) and Ratchatcher (1999) without copying them in anyway. This is completely knew to feature films and is sure to inspire so many more that come from this European auteur style film.
The Card Counter hits where Schrader’s films usually hit, and misses where his films usually miss. It’s a typical story of a man doing everything he can to stay good while the film explores his downfall. It’s acted well, isn’t all too exciting, and is visually explored like you would a painting in a museum. Though it’s not another one of Schrader’s masterpieces, it finds itself to be very well made and immensely interesting. It’s not playing everywhere but if you can get to it, check it out and form your own opinion!