Paul Schrader makes films about lost souls in torment and unachievable goals, the sort of bleak existential purgatories that speak to our own uglier moments. Ahead of the Venice press screening of his latest production, an impromptu security cordon makes more than 100 guests late, after which they are only allowed into the cinema in small dribs and drabs – a tense, shuffling progress that extends throughout the film’s opening half-hour. The critics are in uproar; the ushers get lairy. Wherever he is, I imagine that Schrader himself would approve of the show.
On screen, The Card Counter provides another stylish, slow-burning account of Schrader’s lonesome samurai, a figure who can crop up in all walks of life: as a taxi driver, an escort, a drug dealer, a priest. On this occasion he’s embodied by a blank-eyed Oscar Isaac, who wears his scuffed leather jacket like a bulletproof vest. William Tell (formerly Tillich) is a veteran of Abu Ghraib and served eight years for his crimes. He now earns a living at the card tables and roulette wheels of middle America. The film has him driving the strip malls at night or prowling the stygian bowels of interchangeable casinos, with their patterned carpets and heavy black drapes. These joints have lights blazing everywhere and yet always appear cloaked in shadow. The gamblers, one worries, bring the darkness in with them.
Tell has an agent, La Linda (played by comedian Tiffany Haddish) who wants to find him a backer and put him in the world series, but that’s too much commitment, he’d rather go it alone. “Poker,” he tells us, “is all about waiting. Hours pass. Days pass. And then something happens.”
One night, in the hotel bar, Tell meets excitable young Cirk (Tye Sheridan). Cirk’s on the trail of Major John Gordon (Willem Dafoe), a one-time private contractor at Abu Ghraib who has since made a fortune flogging security software. Gordon, we discover, beat the rap for his crime and let the little guys take the fall. Cirk wants revenge. He thinks that maybe Tell does as well.
Schrader directs with the unhurried air of a man who has told some variation of this story many times before. The central relationships can be a little schematic, while the plot slaloms in and out of plausibility. Still, the cast keeps it honest and there is much to relish in the film’s moody, meditative intensity. At its best, The Card Counter is wonderfully retro, like an old-fashioned noir. In an earlier era, with a few narrative tweaks, the role of William Tell could have been played by a growling Humphrey Bogart or a glacial Alain Delon.
It almost goes without saying that Cirk and Tell’s plan is ludicrously far-fetched. It involves a tranquilliser gun and poisoned darts bought online. But then Schrader’s heroes are rarely geared for success. They ignore common sense and avoid the exit ramps in their path, proceeding slowly, inexorably toward the cliff edge. The director lines them up and lets them go, like a malign professor seeing off his latest class of graduates. He’s done this before and he’ll do it again. His supply of damned fools appears all but inexhaustible.