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Are we in the creative renaissance of Paul Schrader? After 2017 masterful First reformed, the writer / director seems to be back in the graces of Hollywood prestige, after a period marked by lost, forgotten and / or undervalued features (and the crazy vehicle of Lindsay Lohan Canyons). His latest is The card counter – now on VOD – in which Oscar Isaac plays a career player whose austere facade shelters a few demons. Of course, he’s hiding a few demons – it’s a Paul Schrader movie, after all. It’s just a matter of who the shadow of darkness it is casting this time around.

The essential: His name is William Tell (Isaac), but he doesn’t. In a voiceover, he explains how he learned to count cards while in prison. He once yearned to roam free, but he adapted perfectly to the confines of incarceration. (Curious.) He’s out now, a man without a permanent home, traveling the country, visiting casinos to play blackjack and poker. This is his life. We meet him as he takes home a modest $ 750 in prize money. He is okay with low stakes games because he knows that casinos are okay with card counters who don’t win too much. He doesn’t say much. He wears a smart suit jacket and pants and an impenetrable glow, eschewing hoodies, sunglasses, or the oversized characters of other pro gamers. These are just distractions – he’s a purist, it seems. What are his stories? Does he have any? He may not have one.

William checks into a motel room, removes the pictures from the wall, unplugs the clock and phone, and meticulously wraps all the furniture in white linens and twine. Interesting. Particular. Only adds to his pod-person vibes. But that’s probably not a bad idea when you stay at the Super 8 for $ 65 a night. human feces and squatting in excruciatingly painful positions while excoriating the howls of heavy metals. Does that explain it? The particularities of William? May be. Is anything ever so easily explained? After a few hands, he sees a familiar face: La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). She went around the tables. She runs a “stable” for professional players; his backers put in the dough and he gets a share of the winnings. He’s not interested. She asks him why he is playing. “It passes the time,” he said.

William’s next stop is a casino where a law enforcement conference is being held. He falls into a seminar led by Gordo (Willem Dafoe), listens to a spiel. Cirk (Tye Sheridan), pronounced “Kirk”, recognizes William as the guy who took the fall for Gordo when Gordo was shouting orders at his underlings in Abu Ghraib. (Aha!) Cirk explains it to William: he has a big grudge. He wants Gordo dead. The situation inspires – awakens? – something in William. He changes course and not only invites Cirk to travel with him from casino to casino, but accepts La Linda’s proposal. Why change your mind? He wants to earn money to help Cirk get back on his feet, he tells La Linda. There may also be a romantic spark between this charming woman and this mysterious man. This mysterious man whose motives are so difficult to determine.

Photo: © Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection

What movies will this remind you of? : “Time passes,” said William. “I drive,” says Ryan Gosling in Drive. “One day, a rain will come to wash all the foam from the streets”, declares Robert De Niro in Taxi driver.

Performances to watch: Isaac is in turmoil here. He plays a pressure cooker of a human, the darkness within, deeply conflicted, creepy-beautiful, magnificently creepy, terrifyingly charismatic, charismatically terrifying.

Memorable dialogue: “You just have to go around in circles until you figure things out. “- William

Gender and skin: A tasteful sex scene; male nudity during torture scene.

Our opinion : The card counter is not a typical game movie. Sure it’s not. Schrader shows no interest in the usual drama of the poker tables; its protagonist is a mathematician, and I imagine watching him play is like looking over the shoulder of someone working out quadratic equations. What he does in casinos is barely gambling, and frankly, lousy near-noir film fodder. Much more engaging is spending time with a man who doesn’t have a permanent address and drives from place to place, on a borderline deranged personal diet, trying to balance the part of him that is able to torture people, and the part that cares about its fellow human beings.

Schrader directs the film with rigorous control, his visual rigor contrasting with its protagonist, seemingly concocted to inspire inferences. Why the name William Tell (as in the opening, and pulling an apple from a child’s head)? Why does he keep a handwritten diary? Why the sheets and the string? Why is he single? Why does he feel the need to take a aimless kid under his wing? In a funny way, he makes a deal with Cirk: if the kid calls his mother from whom he is estranged, he promises to fuck. William’s behavior finds common ground between a serious concern for Cirk and a twilight shadow of the soul inspiring a feeling of nausea, leaving us to wonder if this is how Dahmer cared for the poor souls who found themselves. in his freezer. The film is a character study and collection of provocations giving rise to a myriad of interpretations, one of which seems to be how America creates damaged men like William – and Taxi driverVietnam veteran Travis Bickle by bringing out their most despicable tendencies.

So we spend a lot of the movie trying to put our thumbs up on a character smeared with petroleum jelly, but it’s a business far more fascinating than frustrating. William Tell is in the line of Schrader’s broken loners like Travis Bickle and First reformed‘s Rev. Toller, desperate men in search of a place for themselves in the world. Schrader takes the subject seriously, but also keeps himself away from emotions enough to recognize the absurdity not only of the script, but of existence itself, in film and in reality. It’s poignant drama and underhanded comedy, with the narrative progressing with so much uncertainty and inevitability, through moments of beauty and brutality, and ending with a final shot (and dare I say transcendent?) suspended in time. It is not only a provocation for itself, it is an intentional provocation.

Our call: Stream it. The card counter doesn’t offer much resemblance to traditional dramatic resolution, and if you’re expecting something else then you haven’t seen a Schrader movie, which regularly places its characters on crazy and unsettling paths to redemption.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work on johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.

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