“I don’t really feel like it’s going anywhere,” a character in Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter laments at one point, and for a good long time one is inclined to feel this way about the film itself. Like the titular low-end professional gambler, Schrader here plays the long game, winning as often as not by studying patterns, conservatively abiding by carefully calculated odds and not acting on impulse. But just when you’ve about given up on the film and its mostly forlorn characters, the writer-director shows his winning hand, the clouds part, the sun shines bright and redemption — creative and moral — is to be had.
In different ways, Schrader has frequently explored seriously flawed characters working through a living hell to find a certain enlightenment, or at least partial liberation from their wayward behavior. On the surface, at least, this is a calmer, less turbulent film than some of the emotionally explosive works he’s written and/or directed. It’s centered on a man who is more composed and zipped up than any of his previous leading men, other than, perhaps, the priest played by Ethan Hawke in the recent First Reformed.
Cheerless certainly describes the demeanor of William Tell — and, yes, it’s impossible to guess why Schrader endowed him with that name. Compact, quiet and seemingly determined to pass through life stirring the fewest possible ripples, this solitary man roams through some of the most mundane countryside in the United States (the film was mostly shot around Biloxi, Mississippi) and plays cards in gigantic, banal, style-free gambling halls, accumulating a nice stash in the process.
Tell, played with an arresting, purposeful calmness by Oscar Isaac, is an oddball, to be sure, a self-contained man of regular habits and little outward emotion. He’s entirely polite and agreeable, but resists getting personal and shows scant interest in any kind of intimacy. At the modest motels he frequents, he covers all of the furniture with linens he brings with him. He’s quiet, never imposes and avoids all but the most perfunctory verbal exchanges with those he meets.
Given who wrote this, one might reasonably expect that we’re merely witnessing the calm before the storm, that some shocking and gigantic dose of violence will eventually emanate from the egg of seclusion that this closed-off man has constructed around him. Or maybe it’s simply existential angst. In measured doses, however, his past is parceled out.
Tell was, once upon a time, a special ops soldier in Iraq named William Tillich whose interrogation techniques at the Abu Ghraib prison knew no bounds. Like a dozen or more torturers in real life, Tillich was punished for overstepping and has now returned to civilian life chastened to the point of imposing strict limits on himself and making a living shuttling from one mundane gambling emporium to another.
Momentary flashbacks, featuring Willem Dafoe as Tillich’s commanding officer in charge of torture oversight, pepper the narrative, which otherwise maintains a very low-level dramatic profile; mostly, we observe Tillich’s tight, fastidious behavior, his uneventful travel, his quite uninteresting exchanges with a young lost soul, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), and a slowly developing amorous relationship with a spirited casino worker named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), the one person who has the potential to lure Tell at least part way out of his shell.
The film seriously bogs down whenever Cirk is around and there are moments in this deliberately paced drama when there simply isn’t enough going on to sustain interest, an odd development given that casinos nearly always offer a lively backdrop for all kinds of intrigue and action.
However, very near the end, when Schrader finally plays his long-held trump card, it’s as if the clouds have all lifted, evil and ennui have evaporated and the drama rises to a new, exalted level that signals a major new lease on life for the pertinent characters and a bracing charge for patient viewers; a somewhat trying experience is suddenly transformed into a rewarding one more abruptly than in any film in memory. Nearly 40 years ago, Schrader published a serious study entitled Transcendental Style In Film. He’s now made a film that qualifies to be considered in that context.
Focus releases The Card Counter domestically on September 10.