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Are we in the midst of Paul Schrader’s creative renaissance? After the masterful of 2017 First reformedthe writer/director seems to be back in the graces of Hollywood prestige, after a period marked by lost, forgotten and/or undervalued feature films (and Lindsay Lohan’s goofy vehicle The canyons). His latest is The card counternow on HBO Max — in which Oscar Isaac embodies a career player whose austere facade harbors a few demons. Of course, it hides some demons – it’s a Paul Schrader movie, after all. It’s just a matter of who the shadow of darkness that it fills this time.

The essential: His name is William Tell (Isaac), but he has no tell. In voiceover, he explains how he learned to count cards while he was in prison. He once longed to roam free, but he adapted very well to the confinements of incarceration. (Curious.) He’s out now, a man of no permanent abode, traveling the country, visiting casinos to play blackjack and poker. It’s his life. We meet him as he wins a modest $750. He’s okay with low-stakes games because he knows casinos are okay with card counters that don’t win too big. He doesn’t say much. He wears a smart suit jacket and pants and an inscrutable gaze, eschewing the hoodies, sunglasses, or oversized personas of other professional players. These are just distractions – he’s a purist, it seems. What are his tells? 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 telephone, and meticulously wraps all the furniture in white sheets and twine. Interesting. Particular. Only adds to his pod-person vibes. But that’s probably not a bad idea when you’re staying at the $65-a-night Super 8. He writes in his diary and sips whiskey and falls asleep and distorted fisheye-lens nightmares of a military torture prison where inmates climb naked through human excrement and squat in excruciatingly painful positions while flaying heavy metal hits. Does that explain it? William’s idiosyncrasies? Maybe. Is anything ever so easily explained? After a few hands, he spots a familiar face: La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). She walked around the tables. She runs a “stable” for professional players; his backers put up the dough and he gets a share of the winnings. He is 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 taking place. He falls into a seminar led by Gordo (Willem Dafoe), listens to a sales pitch. Cirk (Tye Sheridan), pronounced “Kirk”, recognizes William as the guy who took Gordo’s fall when Gordo was shouting orders to his underlings in Abu Ghraib. (Aha!) Cirk explains it to William: he is very resentful. He wants Gordo dead. Does the situation inspire — awaken? – something in William. He changes his approach to solitary life and not only invites Cirk to travel with him from casino to casino, but accepts La Linda’s proposal. Why this change of mind? He wants to make money to help Cirk straighten out his life, 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.

THE FILM STREAMING CARD COUNTER
Photo: ©Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collection

What movies will this remind you of? : “It passes the time,” said William. “I drive,” says Ryan Gosling in Conduct. “One day, a rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets,” says Robert De Niro in Taxi driver.

Performance to watch: Isaac is cooking at full throttle here. He plays a pressure cooker of a human being, the darkness inside, deeply conflicted, scary-beautiful, beautifully scary, terrifyingly charismatic, charismatically terrifying.

Memorable dialogue: “You just go around and around until you sort things out.” – William

Sex and skin: A tastefully rendered sex scene; male nudity during a torture scene.

Our opinion : The card counter is not a typical game movie. Sure it’s not. Schrader shows no interest in the usual poker table drama; its protagonist is a mathematician, and I imagine watching him play is like looking over the shoulder of someone working on quadratic equations. What he does in casinos is barely gambling, and frankly, lousy quasi-noir film fodder. It’s much more engaging to spend time with a man who doesn’t have a permanent address and drives from place to place, following a personal diet bordering on insane, trying to balance the part of him that is capable of torturing people and the part that cares about his fellow man.

Schrader directs the film with tight control, its visual rigor contrasting with its protagonist, seemingly concocted to inspire inference. Why the name William Tell (as in the overture, and shoot an apple on a child’s head)? Why does he keep a handwritten diary? Why sheets and string? Why is he single? Why does he feel the need to take an aimless kid under his wing? Amusingly, he makes a deal with Cirk: if the kid calls his estranged mother, he promises to get laid. William’s behavior strikes a middle ground between serious concern for Cirk and a twilight shadow of the soul instilling a sense of unease, 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 a collection of provocations giving rise to myriad interpretations, one of which seems to be how America creates damaged men like William – and Taxi driverTravis Bickle, Vietnam veteran, in exposing their most despicable tendencies.

So we spend a lot of the movie trying to get our hands on a Vaseline-smeared character, but that’s a far more fascinating than frustrating endeavor. William Tell is in line with Schrader’s broken loners like Travis Bickle and First reformed‘s Rev. Toller, desperate men looking for a place for themselves in the world. Schrader takes the subject matter seriously, but also stands at enough emotional distance to recognize the absurdity not just of the script, but of existence itself, in film and in reality. It’s harrowing drama and sly comedy, the narrative progressing with equal amounts of uncertainty and inevitability, through moments of beauty and brutality, and concluding with a final (and dare I say transcendent) plan. ?) suspended in time. It’s not just provocation for fun, it’s intentional provocation.

Our call: SPREAD IT. The card counter doesn’t offer much traditional dramatic resolution, and if you’re expecting anything else, then you haven’t seen a Schrader film, which regularly puts its characters on crazy and unsettling paths to redemption.

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

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