Reviews: Review of “The Card Counter” (“The Card Counter”), by Paul Schrader, with Oscar Isaac (Flow)

After passing through festivals such as Venice and BAFICI, the new film by the legendary American screenwriter and director comes to streaming with this story about the misadventures of a poker player who ratifies the good times he is going through after The priest / First Reformed.

The Card Counter (United States-United Kingdom-China/2021). Script and direction: Paul Schrader. Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, and Willem Dafoe. Photography: Alexander Dynan. Edition: Benjamin Rodriguez Jr. Music: Giancarlo Vulcano and Robert Levon Been. Duration: 112 minutes. Available for rent in Flow from this Saturday July 9.

A man walks into a motel room, opens his suitcase, and pulls out an endless set of gray sheets. With them and with several pieces of rope, he wraps each piece of furniture: the table, the chair, the bed, the sofas, the lamp… The ritual is executed with a patience and precision that can only have been acquired with experience, with a few previous repetitions that in no way could be accounted for. But this man, precisely, is an expert in keeping accounts of what in principle can only be processed by a super-computer.

His own voiceover has been in charge of the presentations: as a child, he tells us, he couldn’t stand the feeling of confinement, being confined to small spaces. So when he started the game, a cruel dealer dealt him the claustrophobia card. But the Bressonian protagonist of this story, embodied by a huge Oscar Isaac, refuses to take for granted those hands that, from the outset, have no chance of rising as winners. The man who lives in roadside motels acquired his almost supernatural abilities when he served time in a tiny cell.

Right there, he learned to count cards, a gift that now provides him with a living. The man who covers everything in grey, and who always dresses in dark tones, sleeps in impersonal spaces without leaving a trace, trying to leave them as neutral as he found them, and between dozes dwells in those non-places designed to dissolve any notion of time : the casinos, where the absence of windows and the infinite lights make us believe that it is always night. On these endless playing fields, he pecks mostly at the blackjack and poker tables, and he does so with the same determination with which he handles the sheets and ropes.

He knows that if he sticks to the methods he has refined over the years, he will win -almost- for sure. But he also knows that the amount of money he takes from the bank should never attract the attention of the pit bosses. First of all, in case he hadn’t gotten along with the motel scene, he intends to fly under the radar. The muted tones of his clothes are now understood as perfect camouflage with the monstrous depression that surrounds him. Paul Schrader, like a gambler in front of a slot machine.

The Card Counter is another perfect vehicle for the screenwriter of First Reformed, hardcore either Taxi driver is stamped against that world that, with good reason, it hates so much. The collision takes shape, yes, with that neatness in the staging with which we were so surprised in his last film to date. A sobriety (only broken in a few moments of sought-after ugliness in fisheye deformation) that shields his pessimistic speech from possible critical voices that, for now, can no longer play the accusatory card of madness.

A very sane Schrader, in full control of his faculties, surrounds us with a thriller whose turbidity is a pure symptom of a nation (the United States) and a time (ours) addicted to the most stupidly destructive bets. Suddenly, The Card Counter it comes out of that toxic fantasy of the casinos and loads the inks in political matters. It is genre cinema with a conscience that, as has already been said, attacks. Now the green rug of the goddess fortune is stained with the blood of a fight against terrorism in which no human right is respected; now we understand that in a country up to the eyeballs in debt, its people also feel how the water reaches up to their necks.

And, in this post-traumatic stress situation, people lose the privilege of free will. Paul Schrader is told by someone that there are bad apples in the basket, but he knows that the problem (really) is in the container itself. The Card Counter wonders about the possibility of prospering in that context and, of course, the story is inevitably tinged with tragedy. There are those who believe that by controlling the numbers, chance will be tamed, but, on top of this, we find a destiny that is already written and that will not admit the slightest change in its wording. So what’s left? Well, contact with others; speaking, listening, understanding, respecting the other. Connect to overcome the dehumanizing isolation to which the system pushes us. Because even seeing everything from the darkest hole, a saving ray of light can be glimpsed.

(This review was published as part of the coverage of the Venice Film Festival 2021)

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