Over a nearly five-decade career, Paul Schrader has made a specialty of stories about loners, drifters, and outcasts (and sometimes outlaws as well). The typical Schrader protagonist – from Taxi Driver to American Gigolo to Light Sleeper to First Reformed – spends much of their time alone, in their room, contemplating, reflecting, often writing. Yet even within this rarified type, the man at the center of The Card Counter, who calls himself William Tell, is a man onto himself, as exemplified by his motel check-in ritual: he takes the paintings off the walls, unplugs the phone and clock radio, removes the literature, and covers everything in the room with his own grey sheets. This is a man of solitude, and of ritual.
“While I was in prison I learned how to count cards,” he tells us, and explains exactly how it’s done (with the help of clever on-screen text). Tell explains the odds and strategies of his method with efficiency and detachment. He drives from casino to casino, around the country. He buys in, he counts his cards, and he leaves his tables quietly, and politely, when he’s up – but not by too much. “If you don’t play for money, why do you play?” he’s asked.
“It passes the time,” he replies.
To call Tell a loner is an understatement – early on, a fellow gambler invites him to have a drink with some friends, to which he replies, “Ah, I’ve met enough people.” So when he meets a young man (Tye Sheridan) who says Tell knew his father, he responds in an unexpected way: “You wanna ride with me?” he asks. “It gets lonely, I’d like company.” This is clearly false, based on literally every thing we’ve learned about the character. So what is he really up to?
It turns out that The Card Counter, like so many of Schrader’s films, is about redemption. “There is also a moral weight a man can accrue,” he writes in his journal. “It’s a weight that cannot be removed.” So while this gambling narrative sets itself up as some kind of an underdog sports movie (not unlike The Color of Money, by Schrader’s frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, here credited as executive producer), even introducing a loathsome antagonist whom he’ll sure face in the climactic Big Game, Schrader undercuts those conventions entirely.
It takes a particular kind of actor to make this material work, and young Mr. Sheridan doesn’t quite nail the off-beat rhythm of Schrader’s dialogue, coming off wooden in the process. But Isaac is never less than credible, playing Tell’s road rituals and routines without allowing the character to become dull or one-note. Much of his juice comes from Tiffany Haddish, who first becomes a business partner (she “stakes” high-caliber players for big-spending “investors”), and then more. There’s something scorching about the way these two characters – and actors – look at each other in their two-scenes; they’re not flirting in dialogue, but they’re constantly flirting in their gazes and pauses.
As is Schrader’s style, the pauses are where most of the movie lives anyway. His stripped-down, Bressonian visual style matches the cold, hard prose of Tell’s journal, and of the vaguely depressing gambling scenes, where the faint, cheerless music of casino slots is only punctuated by the occasional whoop of a winner. Alexander Dynan’s camera is so sparse, so still, so much of the time, that it when it moves, it matters.
But the austerity of the technique is also, this time, a bit of a red herring – there’s an entire second level to Tell’s story, revealed in flashbacks shot via an extreme wide-angle lens technique that hits even harder in comparison to the photography of the main narrative. The trailers don’t reveal this thread, so I’ll say no more, but it does allow the director space for the kind of wild experimentation he clearly also longs to do; a film like Dog Eat Dog feels like an explosion of a repressed id, and while that’s certainly not one of his best films, it’s also an assurance that with this director, we can never be entirely sure of what we’re going to get. So the question becomes: can he pull these seemingly disparate threads together, combining two very different stories and moods?
I’d say that he does, though just barely. But his ambition is admirable, as is his inclination to both serve and subvert his established storytelling style. “I keep to modest goals,” Tell explains, early on. “I prefer to work under the radar.” If you know enough about Schrader, you know he isn’t just talking about gambling.
“The Card Counter” is out Friday in limited release.