December 6, 2021

Film

Debt burden: Paul Schrader’s ‘The Card Counter’

By Keva York

Oscar Isaac as William Tell in The Card Counter. Photograph © Focus Features

The acclaimed writer-director indulges his experimental streak in a thriller that inverts the popular conception of the gambling man

Travis Bickle jumped out of Paul Schrader’s head “like an animal”. Written over the course of 10-odd days, the purgation of an abject, suicidal period in his life, Taxi Driver was Schrader’s second stab at screenwriting, after a dead-end project entitled “Pipeliner”. It was not the first work bearing his imprimatur to make it to the big screen, however – that would be 1974’s The Yakuza, Sydney Pollack’s realisation of a buzzy script Schrader wrote together with his brother Leonard, ultimately a box-office disappointment. It took a few years for the Taxi Driver script to find its way into Martin Scorsese’s hands and for funding to be nailed down. When it was released in 1976, the film secured Schrader’s place in the nicotine-stained, coke-dusted annals of New Hollywood history. It furthermore established the narrative typology to which he would periodically circle back throughout his career, now in its sixth decade, and through which he would make his most potent artistic statements, first as a screenwriter and then, increasingly, as a director.

The Card Counter, Schrader’s latest fabulation, is cast from this same tried-and-true mould: “a man in a room”, as he calls his preferred set-up, the phrase reeking of the kind of existential angst his strict Dutch Calvinist upbringing was wont to foment. A masterfully sedate thriller produced by Scorsese, it’s pegged to Oscar Isaac’s itinerant card sharp William Tillich. Like Travis Bickle before him (or Willem Dafoe’s ageing drug delivery boy in the 1992 drama Light Sleeper, or Ethan Hawke’s small-town priest in 2017’s transcendent First Reformed), Bill seeks to divert a spiritual crisis into a monomaniacal pursuit. Travelling from casino to casino, motel room to motel room, he keeps very deliberately to the margins, an ascetic whose primary companions are a diary and a bottomless glass of hard liquor, natch – another of “God’s lonely men”, doggedly slouching towards some personal Bethlehem.

On his poker circuit – all smaller establishments with uninspiring names such as “Alan’s”, miles from Vegas in both the literal and figurative senses – Tillich goes by the name “William Tell” for reasons that are not solely pun-related. As a soldier in the US Army, it’s revealed, at the dawn of the so-called War on Terror, Bill was stationed at Abu Ghraib. There he was trained in the reprehensible and shockingly ad hoc art of “enhanced interrogation” by one Major John Gordo (Schrader regular Dafoe) – a bristle brush-moustached figure “right out of fucking Call of Duty” who still dominates Bill’s dreams, in which the prison is rendered as unholy maze. Shot with a fish-eye lens so wide as to approximate a VR experience (don’t get any ideas, Oculus), the walls of leery cadmium yellow bulge curvaceously out, practically hugging Bill and Gordo as they move through the space, metal music blaring.

These sequences are all the more arresting for the sense of their aggressive stylisation being a new trick and Schrader an old bulldog. It’s always a thrill when the writer-director indulges his experimental streak – whether by taking a walk along New York’s High Line while strapped into a multi-camera contraption in order to sound off on the state of cinema (to the great befuddlement of passers-by), or taking it upon himself to rework studio-butchered project Dying of the Light (2014) into an unauthorised answer to the question, “what if Nicolas Cage starred in a Stan Brakhage movie?” His unflagging curiosity, a quality inimical to the current working definition of boomer, fosters a certain unpredictability – albeit one that manifests most often in ways that result in his studio banning him from Facebook rather than giving him a bigger budget.

But Schrader isn’t Gaspar Noé, and isn’t trying to be. The bug-eyed Abu Ghraib footage is used sparingly, piercing the dim-lit near-somnolence of Bill’s day-to-day, his hours willed quietly away in a series of carpeted, windowless rooms: undistinguished chambers done up in muted camels and burgundies. This aesthetic no man’s land is Bill’s self-imposed purgatory – because 10 years at Leavenworth couldn’t absolve him of his sins, even if it could make him damn good at counting cards. The giddy gambler’s high of Robert Altman’s California Split (1974) or the Safdies’ Uncut Gems (2019); the suavity of Ocean’s Eleven (2001); the sleazy menace of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) – pointedly, The Card Counter has none of that.

The film does to the popular conception of the gambling man what Taxi Driver did to that of its titular figure (a good-natured, garrulous fellow in the cultural imagination of the day), flipping it on its head. As Bill, Isaac dials his star wattage right down to a steady, magnetic low. His character is devoid of the impulse towards high-stakes scheming, numb to winning’s rush. “I stick to modest goals,” he tells La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, oozing easy charm), an acquaintance from the circuit who tries to recruit him into her gambling stable, to little effect.

Until, that is, a chance encounter with college dropout Cirk (a lunkheaded Tye Sheridan), a fellow man adrift. He knows of Bill’s past life and has his own reasons to be haunted by Gordo, though he tilts towards vengeance where the ex-soldier has chosen something like a strategy of aggressive suppression. A paternal instinct stirs Bill, as it did Sydney in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (1996), to invite the younger man out on the road with him, and so perhaps steer him towards a more righteous path. “He’s got debts,” he tells La Linda, by way of accounting for the sudden shift in his gambling ethos. So does he, of course – moral debts. Bill’s taking on Cirk is a bid for mutual redemption.

He dubs his new travelling companion “The Kid” in tacit homage to Steve McQueen’s hotshot poker player in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), whose sombre-chic garb Bill himself has more or less adopted. The nickname is a gesture towards the fact that he sees something of himself – or rather, his old self – in Cirk’s angry, suggestible young man. Present-day Bill aligns more with the character of Shooter, The Kid McQueen’s mentor: though his days of seeking cards high and wild are over, he’ll still try to stack the deck in his friend’s favour – despite resistance from The Kid.

“I dunno if it really feels like it’s going anywhere,” Cirk tells Bill when he starts to tire of their routine. “You go round and around,” counters Bill, “until you work things out.” Certainly that has been Schrader’s modus operandi. The Calvinist guilt and self-loathing that once leapt like an animal from his head and onto the page has been somewhat domesticated across its numerous outings – no less dangerous, but more intentional, more controlled in its attacks.

What Schrader – the “man in a room” from whom his others descend – has worked out, what he continues to grapple with, is that redemption cannot be earned or won, only given. This idea, roughly speaking, is what Calvinists term “irresistible grace” – a doctrine that Schrader does indeed seem to find irresistible. He has made a ritual of granting his screen creations the forgiveness he craves for himself, most often delivering it in the form of a last-minute revelation of a woman’s love – a grace note, if you will, filched freely, adoringly, from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). Though violence is a feature of The Card Counter – Schrader’s protagonists gear inevitably towards bodily harm – it is only through the shock of love that Bill, and Schrader in turn, achieves the longed-for catharsis.

Keva York

Keva York is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne/Naarm. She has contributed to the ABC, The Saturday Paper and The Lifted Brow.

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