There’s a trope in slasher movies that we call “the doomsayer.” Made popular in the Friday the 13th franchise, it took the form of an old man warning the soon-to-be-slashed teenagers that they are “allllll dooooomed!” Naturally, the teens scoff at his imposing presence, and then bounce off to Camp Crystal Lake, where they are subsequently cut to pieces by a masked murderer. The irony of this character is that we in the audience share his sentiment. We go into the movie knowing that the characters are indeed doomed, and we wince and chuckle when they flippantly refuse to heed the warning of the doomsayer.
It’s fun in the moment, but if you stop to think about it, it’s a pretty chilling depiction of the human condition. How often do we brush off obvious signs of disaster in order to avoid taking action? How often do we ignore aches and pains only to find they were a sign of a larger health problem? One need only look at our response to climate change to see how deeply this avoidance of uncomfortable truths is baked into our genome. Looking back on Paul Schrader’s previous feature, First Reformed, we can see him speaking almost literally about climate change (and plenty of other concerns). Looking at his current release, The Card Counter, we see Schrader’s role as America’s cinematic Doomsayer coalesce even further.
What is he warning us about this time? Oh I dunno. At least not specifically. It’s going to take a few more viewings times suss it out, but there’s no denying that the same darkness that put Father Reverend Ethan Hawke through the ringer is at play here. Instead of a priest, this time around we follow a gambling man, played by Oscar Isaac and his killer jacket. He’s an ex-con with a dark past, and he’d prefer it if you call him William Tell. Why? Maybe because he doesn’t want his past to catch up with him. Maybe he’s trying to distance himself from it. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that a “tell” can give away your bluff in a game of cards. It’s probably all of these things.
Tell is just passing the time, driving from casino to casino and counting cards during games of blackjack. No big games, just a steady stream of small winnings so he can get paid and stay under the radar. He hasn’t been hassled by security, but he has caught the eye of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a talent scout who sponsors successful card players. Tell is hesitant at first, but when he sees an opportunity to help out a lost youth (Tye Sheridan) with whom he shares a common enemy, he decides to “go legit” as it were.
The misanthropy inherent to a lot of Schrader’s work has softened in films like The Card Counter and First Reformed, its edges sanded off by age, I’d imagine. Our protagonists are indeed misanthropic (and who could blame them?), but in both instances they find reasons to keep moving forward. With First Reformed, our self-destructive hero decides to continue living in a world that can’t possibly survive being inhabited by humans. With The Card Counter, our titular shark shifts his motivation from just passing the time to trying to building something good out of his least shameful skill set. The idea that nobody is wholly absent of goodness is antithetical to a cynical worldview, but Schrader has found a way to balance a glint of joy with the assertion that yes, we’re all doomed.
Robbed of thematic heft, The Card Counter plays as a pretty straightforward, slow-burn thriller, a version of Anderson’s Hard Eight that isn’t such an ensemble pice. It wasn’t until the film ended that I had any grasp of what kind of movie it wanted to be, which means that even at a metered pace, the plot was regularly surprising. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the ending (which bodes well — I hate clean resolutions), but the sudden and hardcore nature of the resolution feels ripped from a different movie entirely. Perhaps this is the point, but I get the sense that Schrader is so aware of his brand that he relented to his old bag of tricks rather than taking this to a more fitting conclusion. Brand awareness isn’t always a bad thing, but there are times where it feels like he knows what a “Paul Schrader Film” is, and is working toward that as an endgame, rather than making organic choices. It’s a small complaint, and one that might fade with a second viewing.
There will be a second viewing.
Schrader has some fun with the visuals too. A lesson in card counting presented to us here on the other side of the fourth wall features onscreen bells and whistles to show us each step of the con. A handful of scenes at Guantanamo Bay (yes, you read that right — Schrader’s never-ending reconciliation of Bush era politics is alive and well) are shot with the craziest, most disorienting lens, and it works wonderfully. A scene where Tell and La Linda walk through a decoratively illuminated park is an absolute stunner (due in part to the lights and in part to the compelling chemistry between the leads).
In the middle of the weirdest few years of my life, at a time where my tendency toward “fuck the world and the horse that the world rode in on” is stronger than ever, a movie like this one hits just right. And as a B-side to First Reformed, an of-its-time work that is also somehow completely timeless, The Card Counter is evidence that a longtime master is producing work that is as urgent and thoughtful as ever. And every time the American Flag-shirted poker player won a hand and his lackeys chanted “USA! USA! USA!” from the crowd, I felt the same sense of national shame that has become standard with American citizenship. I sense this was very much Schrader’s intention.
Directed by Paul Schrader
Written by Paul Schrader
Starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Rated R, 109 minutes