The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021, USA/UK/China/Sweden)

The Card Counter is Paul Schrader's latest directorial effort. The film is arriving on the heels of First Reformed, his 2017 Ethan Hawke-starring drama which garnered Schrader his first Academy Award nomination - for Best Original Screenplay. Schrader has had an extensive career going back to his early collaborations with Martin Scorsese. He has directed some veritable masterpieces (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is one of them), but his work seems to be a mixed bag overall. Recently he had a few major flops but seems to be on the upswing. 

The Card Counter, from the first opening monologue of the film, is very much in the vein of Schrader's other works. These are works centered on tortured, lonely men who occupy life on the fringes. Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, a gambler who - like Schrader's most famous character Travis Bickle - is a veteran. In this case, his war in Iraq. The plot is a classic "violence coming home" story straight out of the Vietnam era cinema, with a plot to exact vengeance on a superior at Abu Ghraib (Willem Dafoe) who implemented the torture techniques. Tiffany Haddish plays La Linda, the love interest in the film.

The film moves at a slow, plodding pace, and some have characterized the film as airless or lifeless. It is not a fun film by any means, and it occupies a highly stylized world akin to the works of David Mamet. Still, there is an assuredness here in the writing and a strong vision that Schrader brings to the table. Even with its faults, The Card Counter has a unique voice that is so often drowned out in the contemporary cinema. As with First Reformed, the film ends with a very powerful explosion of violence that makes all the waiting and tension ultimately worth it.



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