At a certain point in Schrader’s latest, a character flatly makes a joke about how he’s read the book Poker for Dummies. Schrader has seemingly also read this book and has adapted it into a feature film, and then shoved in a subplot about US government run torture facilities. Clearly, he thinks he has created a film that explores the sociopathy needed for torture, and how that is replicated in the approach needed for gambling. A cold and distanced way of viewing the world echoes through both; in both arcs life is lived through routine and repetitions. But, Schrader hasn’t made this film. He’s made Poker for Dummies meets the Wikipedia entry on Abu Ghraib.
The Dummies element comes from the film’s waves of trivia, in which our central character (Oscar Isaac) tells us stuff about casino games. His dry but knowledgeable affect is supposed to showcase his hollowness. It certainly rings hollow. Once again, Paul Schrader has made a film that explores the psychological state of a lonely man. It is that film that he makes, and they do say write what you know. The issue is that Schrader doesn’t actually know enough here. He doesn’t know enough to create a psychological portrait, that evades us; he doesn’t know enough to critique state sanctioned torture; he doesn’t even know enough to accurately represent Google Maps. At one bewildering point, a character who can only be in their early 20s (played by Tye Sheridan) pulls out their phone and introduces Oscar Isaac’s titular Card Counter (actually, the opening act tells us that card counting is for blackjack, and then the film is about poker from then on…) and tells him about the wonder that is Google Earth.
This clunky dialogue litters the film and is a reminder that the limits of a screenplay’s reality are the limits of a writer’s knowledge. Okay, Paul Schrader knows sad lonely men. For this reason Oscar Isaac’s character is at home in this film. His performance is good (even if the film isn’t) and he’s well directed. The writing that underpins him is not inherently strong but he is written with a clear and knowledgeable voice. When we step outside of that voice, we have issues. The wider cast (and the film verges on being a three-hander) are woefully written and woefully directed. Leaden dialogue falls clunkily from their mouths as they uniformly unconvince. Surprising probably nobody, Paul Schrader is not good at writing in a voice that befits Tiffany Haddish, nor does he write a role that fits Tye Sheridan. He also doesn’t write a good role for Willem Dafoe, but Dafoe has enough sheer personality to sneak a performance in.
Once again, this feels like Paul Schrader has just discovered something everybody else has always known about and has shoved it into his known structure. While First Reformed managed to elevate itself above a basis that boiled down to ‘hey, folks, I just learnt about climate change’, The Card Counter is sunk down by the feeling of ‘hey, everybody, did you hear about Abu Ghraib? Also, I’ve got really into card games’. The understanding is uniformly shallow, the conclusions are uniformly uninteresting and the film does not come together. The banal script is a large issue, but so is Schrader’s overall obsession with the same archetype. He just can’t not make these fascinated portraits of lonely men (often lonely, fascistic men). The film does not try to create sympathy but it is fascinated by the rhythms and aesthetic of these people. Them being troubled and lonely is enough for Schrader to believe that a film should be built around them. In the end, we get an exposé of torture that focuses on one of the torturers and how he now plays cards. Again, you could make a very interesting film about the underlying sociopathy and make a compelling psychological film. This is not that. This is Paul Schrader wanting to making a Bresson film (he even lifts the film’s ending from Bresson, an ending that only makes any sense as an allusion) and this is Schrader thinking that extended silences and slow zooms are substance.
The legacy of torture lives on in American society (and beyond). In fact, it doesn’t just live on, practices continue. Schrader hasn’t got to that part of the Wikipedia article, maybe that will be his next film. I await his exploration of Hearthstone and ICE via the perspective of a lonely man. The Card Counter does a lot of talking low and going slow. It lingers in darkly lit rooms and gives you far too much time to reflect on the absence of substance. We are only ever in Schrader’s view of the world, and the view isn’t wide enough to glean enough importance.