Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish in “The Card Counter”Photo: focus photos

Stories of private domestic turmoil need not be narrow; in some ways this has been the story of Paul Schrader’s career. The 75-year-old writer of Taxi driver and director of works ranging from Detroit decor Blue collar To American gigolo and his last, First reformed, has refined, like a craftsman or a painter, a long series of works in the same mold. Specializing in the close character studies of repressed, ardently hopeful and tormented men rising to an often violent catharsis, Schrader’s rigorous but richly indulgent project finds its final chapter in The card counter – and his years of practice show.

Starring Oscar Isaac as William Tell, a nomadic gamer who stays afloat on low-stakes games, Schrader’s latest film swings with a steady and rarely interrupted pace between casinos and roadside motels. With a methodical and demanding approach well suited to a little king of number games, he works with great discipline and little pleasure, absent friends and lovers. TO To counterAt first, Tell lays a low profile after finding himself freed from prison, modestly earning at cards each day before retreating to his chosen room, each disparate space blending in for the way he covers their seedy furniture with twine and white fabric. Drifting across the country, each space in which he temporarily settles becomes both anonymous and his own.

As a performer associated less with the pathos than with his appearance and easy charm, Isaac shows admirable control here; his poker face in this case is a whole body effort. Retaining his charisma only to dispense it by small turns of mind and movements of the face which acquire a surprising power for their parsimony, he gives just what is needed in monologue and gesture to titillate, cultivating a palpable air of mystery. Reliably covered in neutral, shiny clothing and sporting a sleek, fastidious, quirky fit, it exudes an air of sheer precision and control whose cracks are armed to heighten feeling and meaning. With its neat frames adorned with finely modeled shadows and supported by a fiery electronic score that stifles the artificial buoyancy of the casinos spinning through our sight, Schrader and his team engage intimately with Tell’s air of precision. Watching Tell open up, risking privacy, trust, and freer expression (a gamble!) – things that have never been successfully mastered – is the privilege of the lucky beholder. For those who remain emotionally hungry, each gesture settles down like a meal.

But the reintroduction of Tell to the world, or at least to a world of people, does not come without provocation; he was spotted – and confronted – with a “Cirk with a ‘C”, a clumsy, scoreless, and quite broke twenty-five-year-old played by Loan Player OneIt’s Tye Sheridan. With Cirk more of a story sheet and agent of chaos than a cohesive and thoughtful person, the two wandering aliens are paired not only through questions about their respective goals (one seeming messy and aimless, the other pursuing a ordered aesthetic existence) but from their past. As Cirk reveals, Tell’s incarceration was not for nothing (although on some level it was) – in Tell’s past life as a soldier, he participated in the heinous torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, alongside Cirk’s own father. Unlike Major Gordo (played by an ever-splendid Willem Dafoe), the man who ruled them both, Tell found himself photographed at the scene and thrown into military prison, as did Cirk’s father. After his father is released, Cirk claims his family has been subjected to years of fatherly torment and abuse. Raging with resentment and mired in debt, he hatches a vague plan to torture and kill Major Gordo – foolishly imagining that revenge could bring any kind of relief.

Working to distract Cirk from this class and pay off the child’s debts, Tell agrees to bring him with him, offering him an allowance, covering his expenses, and letting him roam every casino while he works – all while maintaining clear and prudent limits. To that end – and some warmer ones – Tell accepts the company of La Linda (a sparkling and flamboyant Tiffany Haddish). La Linda runs a stable of poker players, coordinating with sponsors to get them betting on high stakes games. Recognizing Tell’s potential to earn much more, she takes him under her wing, regularly pushing him on his past crimes after gaining insight into his prison past – and inquiring into his current hermetic existence.

As they drift across the land, moving sideways through similar places, but somehow and with little fanfare, moving through this dark world, the three form a hesitant bond, each player playing in different and contradictory styles. Suggesting that they come from different worlds emotionally and otherwise, their range of presentation reflects Tell’s own struggles and isolation, the idea that he has to relearn, or perhaps never learned, to navigate the world. Swirling around the touching suggestion that being forgiven is the same as forgiving yourself, and the natural implication that loving others – a sweet indulgence if ever there is one – is tied to affection for oneself. even, the tense efforts of the characters to meet each other pierce the orderly surface of the film with a softness amplified by the material that surrounds them. For Schrader, who grew up in Dutch Protestant Reformed communities in western Michigan, his films are guided by a kind of religiosity that depends on some kind of moving faith – but not just in God.

For Schrader, too, the looming horror of Abu Ghraib is more than just a backdrop, a challenge to it all. Recall and capture cataclysmic acts that may well be unforgivable – and never mistakenly cite 9/11 as some kind of rushed and self-justified cause for them – The card counter sinks into Tell’s closed and hermetic struggle until it becomes intimate and shared. (To be so personal, the film is miraculously free from self-justification.) The meticulous order of Tell’s own life is reflected in the storyline, whose narrative rhymes and clear omissions present the purpose and proof of a demanding deliberation: a strained effort to contain and address this, and a case for the film on its own. In the malls and cash temples of the film world, this approach serves to narrow down and explain the messier and uglier parts of life, handling the fruitful tensions of the story with thought and care. By confronting them and sharing those parts of his own mind in such a personal way as this, Schrader himself is taking a practiced, revealing and quite risky bet himself.

This story was originally published by CityBeat’s sister newspaper, Detroit Metro Times.

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