Venice Film Festival: The Card Counter plays the long game

In the first week of the Venice Film Festival, Paul Schrader drew the crowds for his latest directorial attempt. Attempt is the operative word here because it is the latest film examining his favourite subject. He has continued to create stories since the 1970’s that broadly follow the archetype of God’s Lonely Man, and although he has succeeded at some more than others he never disappoints. Many could be forgiven for dismissing this as just another film that succumbs to the typical tropes of a Paul Schrader film with the checklist running something like this: Tortured protagonist with a lonely occupation. Check. Inward and self-aware narration. Check. A chip on a shoulder against an institution. Check. Relentless tug between absolving sins naturally and seeking redemption through bloody violence. Check. Despite all these patterns materialising as expectantly as the night follows day, the audience didn’t seem to mind.

Despite the one dimensional title, The Card Counter was never going to be your typical, run of the mill casino flick. There’s no way Schrader could have made a conventional card counting heist a la Ocean’s Eleven or Casino. He always needs a raison d’etre for his films, or else he’s not playing the game. The name of the game here is Oscar Isaac’s enigmatic William Tell, a former military interrogator who has turned to counting cards in seedy Mid Western casino halls as a way of both escaping and staying engrossed in his past. Tell makes a huge effort to hide his whereabouts and actions, staying well away from the casino hotel rooms in which he plays ‘there’s cameras everywhere and the rooms are bugged.’ The shabby motel rooms he shacks up in are quickly transformed into their own form of solitary confinement as he covers every inch of the room on arrival with sheets. He makes way for his nightly habit of recounting his thoughts in his diary, another infamous Schrader trope. 

Oscar Isaac gives an immense, mesmerising performance, his droopy deserted eyes imitating the same uneasiness conveyed by a young De Niro, leaving you completely disarmed trying to work out if he’s being charming or menacing. His character meets La Linda, played by Tiffany Haddish, a representative sent by investors to back talented undercover card counters like Tell. Tye Sheridan plays Cirk (yes, with a C), a young delinquent with dark, malevolent thoughts who Tell takes under his wing as he travels from one casino to the next. Cirk’s unstable thoughts lead him to want to torture and kill Willem Dafoe’s character, a former prison interrogator who helped make Cirk’s father and William Tell complicit in horrendous torture tactics. Haddish and Isaac share a remarkable chemistry together but Sheridan’s casting seems too inexperienced, he lacked any sort of dynamism, and together they all came across as three random actors pushed together rather than three competent individuals meant to portray a dysfunctional family on screen. Some parts of the script were notably weak, most obviously when relating to any of these secondary characters. Where Shrader thrives is his internal monologue which Isaac embodies very well, illustrating his internalised guilt and his desperation to expiate his sins from his time in the can.

Beyond Schrader’s hold over the written word is his adeptness at directing, leading with superb shots and sensual sequences drawing on impactful music to underscore the moments. He takes note from his lifelong friend Scorsese with his camera movements, the unmotivated camera working wonders at certain points to depict a scene that is too difficult to witness, even for the camera. This technique lends the viewer the space to fill in the gaps, a discretionary tool which many filmmakers fail to deploy these days. 

The character archetype that Schrader won’t let go of examining is of course God’s Lonely Man, and it is a character arc so intriguing that it has become his life’s quest to relentlessly examine every part of it. It’s not an insult or even laziness to rehash such a story because it is one intimately ingrained in our conscience – a man’s struggle against the world at large is as poignant and universal as you’re likely to get. To understand the internalised anger Schrader will generally take a situation and a vessel to transport the anger, whether that be a taxi driver, a card player, or a gigolo. There is always an indictment of a system that has left the loner lonelier than just being alone. In the Card Counter we see Tell manipulating the stakes, taking a stab at beating the house, the establishment, the man. Tell attempts to rectify and expiate his previous sins by taking the boy under his wings, but as admirable as that is his inner demons manifest themselves in the end. They always do.

If you can’t already tell I’m a huge Schrader fan and for the most part he can do no wrong. This was undoubtedly a step out of his comfort zone in the sense that his first Oscar nomination for First Reformed as an examination of the priesthood was a far more nuanced portrait that drew on Schrader’s own strict Calvinist upbringing. It’s obvious here that he didn’t grow up in a casino hall, as the card counting aspect is secondary in nature. Despite this, what I love about Schrader is that he is unapologetically true to himself, he continues to try and continues to thrive; he continues to play the long game. 

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