Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 13, 2021 7:20 am 
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Paul Schrader plays his cards right

The Card Counter shows Paul Schrader in top form only four years after his much praised First Reformed. I like this new one even better. He's on a roll. So may be Oscar Isaac, who is riveting in the new film as "William Tell," the protagonist, a gambler haunted by his past. His real name is Tillich, a theologian's name to link him with the Rev. Toller of the last Schrader film: Schrader's screenplays are all interrelated, always in a sense the same Calvinist, doom-ridden tale. His new protagonist, like Toller and other Schriader heroes, is looking for expiation and revenge for a burdensome past. For him, Tolller's 250-year-old church is replaced by a succession of gambling casinos and anonymous motel rooms whose furnishings he inexplicably swathes in sheets, whether for cleanliness, or ghostliness, or in emulation of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, we never know.

Tell is both tightly wound and cool. His eyes are empty and far-off, but he is suave. At first we merely admire him, though without actually wanting to be him. He's awfully slick, and well turned out in somber, richly modest outfits. Though weirdly obsessive and dangerously narrow, he's impressive. There's a muted excitement about him, as if he were getting away with a crime.

Tell has done eight years in a military prison where time was the primary commodity. Stephen Whitty in his preface to a 2018 Village Voice interview with the director pointed out (though I'm not entirely sure what this means) that Schrader learned from the Neorealists how "movies are time" and "can sculpt" time using "the scalpel of boredom." The sculpting of time through boredom seems an obvious element of The Card Counter. Longeurs here remind us this is real. And it's also surreal. His patience is used by Tell to play cards and win - modestly so, because he doesn't want to attract too much attention.

Like a hero in a film by Schrader's idol Robert Bresson, Tell keeps a diary of private thoughts in a composition book, and in the film these musings morph into a voiceover that explains how while doing time he mastered the art of counting cards, using a trained memory and familiarity with the inner workings of poker and blackjack to play his hand to win. (As an added amusement he taught himself to manipulate cards and do flashy card tricks. And he has rules for roulette, but they're not very hopeful, just a way to minimize one's losses.)

First the film unreels this easy stuff about how Tell taught himself in prison to make a living with cards doing one-night stands at casinos. Then gradually there emerges the menace that haunts him, the reason why he tosses and turns every night with nightmares in his Christo-wrapped motel rooms.

Now Schrader unveils a central truth: at the heart of the many evils that surround the Iraq war is the hideous one of Abu Ghraib. Such national evil doesn't go away, nor the attendant private guilt. And the additional fun fact: for the atrocities committed at that prison under US control (which we see briefly but horrifyingly recreated in bug-eyed, yellow-tinted visions) the higher-ups were all spared. Only the lower level Americans in a telltale celebratory photograph went to jail for Abu Ghraib; the masterminds went free.* Most notable was a certain Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). As a military interrogator, hence conductor of hideous torture, Tell was Gordo's disciple.

Amid the smooth but dreary round of Tell's methodical card play a ray of light appears in the person of the warm and charming La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a lady who manages a stable of professional gamblers sponsored by wealthy donors. She wants to recruit Tell, and now remains part of his scene, also anticipating more from and with him. They drink together. Alcohol is a constant part of Tell's life as it usually tends to be in all Schrader's tormented heroes' lives, as it was in the life of Bresson's tormented country priest. Follow-up reading: Schrader's classic 1972 treatise, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Optional; I haven't read it.)

One day Tell is at a casino-linked law enforcement convention passing the time sitting through a pitch for new facial recognition software when Gordo appears, minus the "Major," rebranded as the hawker of the software. Next to Tell in the room is Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a carelessly dressed twenty-something who recognizes both Gordo and Tell. Cirk draws Tell aside and points out he knows who they both are. He explains how his own life has been derailed because his father also was at Abu Ghraib and became a maimed monster there. Cirk's mother ran away from the beatings and so his father beat only him. (Rev. Toller sent his son to his death in Iraq and his wife left him for it.) Cirk doesn't drink, however. But his life and his hotel room are a shambles and he has debts for a college education he didn't complete - and an irrepressible longing for revenge on Gordo for which he has a breathless, naive plan.

With the prospect of rescuing Cirk, Tell is suddenly offered a way to redemption. He persuades Cirk - who proves a whiz at sports betting - to follow him around to keep him company on the road. He turns to "celebrity gambling," closely followed by an even more interested La Linda, to make larger amounts and provide what Cirk needs to pay off all his debts as well as his mother's and reunite with her.

Tell assembles the cash and persuades Cirk, menaces him really, into the debt-paying and reunion. But this is a Paul Schrader film, and after that things go dramatically wrong. Justin Chang points out that Schrader has often warned in his plots that "there are few things more dangerous or crushing than a wayward young soul in need of rescue." Chang also points to additional flaws typical of Schrader. HIs "moral inquiry" relies on "narrative contrivance." Some lines are too emphatically delivered, especially when meant to sound off the cuff. Chang thinks it's all worth it, and compliments the editing (by Benjamin Rodriguez Jr.), the "hard shimmer" of the cinematography (by Alexander Dynan) and the "humdrum precision" (the captured American ugliness) of the production design (Ashley Fenton). I concur and wonder why no one mentions the score except to condemn it.

But what I most admire in this film aside from the composure and power of Oscar Isaac as Tell/Tillich, is its cloistered strangeness and the surprising authenticity of the casino sequences. The warmth and ease of Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sherdan's open present-ness help make the slanted, doctrinaire narrative seem more palatable, and allow one to relish The Card Counter's distinctive malaise - what Xian Brooks calls it's "moody, meditative intensity".

So, the boredom of the casinos contributes admirably to the Bressonian sculpting of time. But does Schrader really need two and a half hours for a film that is very repetitive? There are moments when the film seems momentarily without direction, lost in a set of neurotic OCD rituals and numbingly methodical card games. But I bet my money on Tell in the first reel and I stand pat. I do not find the final shocks and violence anticlimactic as some do. I do not know if the final shot, which is perhaps inspired by Michelangelo, possesses a tragic beauty (as some think), but it is a memorable conclusion to a powerful, distinctive film.
*From Richard Brody on The New Yorker's website (I like): "Above all, the film decries the impunity that the war’s masterminds and the country’s leaders enjoyed while William and other frontline grunts took the blame. . . It’s that notion of the prevailing order’s insidiously hermetic system of self-protection that gives “The Card Counter” its furious energy."

The Card Counter, 149 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2, 2021, opening in Italy Sept. 3, playing also at Telluride, Deauville, and other international festivals. It opened theatrically in the US Sept. 10, 2021. Metascore: 80%.



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