I’ve been thinking a lot about Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, but probably not for the reasons you would think. The film is getting a lot of positive buzz—and I think there are elements really worth talking about in this quiet, contemplative drama—but I can’t help but feel its successes are parkouring off the back of its predecessor, 2017’s fiery and fierce First Reformed. Schrader is known for his meditations on loneliness; his storied history of projects—including script duties for Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Bringing Out the Dead—always seem to follow tortured souls who could be part of the same bridge circle or fight club. It’s clear both The Card Counter and First Reformed are cut from that same cloth, though the latter sticks the landing better than the former.
Both of these films, in true Schrader style, are about something brewing under the surface—underneath the monotony, the loneliness, the minutiae of life. We follow the quiet life of William Tell, played with steady determination and precision by the incredible Oscar Isaac. He floats through life counting cards at lower stakes casino games, quite literally just passing the time among the tables. But he lets the audience know from the beginning that his demeanor stems from doing ten years of hard time. At first, it seems like he truly just wants to exist in the free world without any constraints, content to glide along by the edges of cards forever. Quickly, though, we learn that there is an anger building inside Tell and he is desperate to exercise it in the right way, the justified way.
Isaac’s character is easily a spiritual sibling to Ethan Hawke’s Ernst Toller, the pastor of the First Reformed church who grapples with the erosion of his faith amid a volatile realization within his parish. As The Card Counter’s plot plays out, Tell begins to spin out like a car, trying his damnedest to keep control of what has become of his life. Even his attempt to give up solitude turns against him—much like it does for Toller when he becomes embroiled with Amanda Seyfried’s Mary and her husband, Michael—when he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man eager to inflict violence upon a mutual figure from both their pasts. Isaac is immensely good at quiet conflict, the internal struggle. It permeates the entire film and makes it worth watching. His performance gives us a reason to care that, once again, Schrader is taking us down the dark and amoral path he is known to tread.
As the ante is sufficiently upped in both films, it becomes increasingly clear that each picture is also about fighting hard to justify your actions—if you can. In First Reformed, Toller is introduced to the concept that man is parasitic to the earth, which directly contrasts with the faith he is trying hard to uphold and the life he is trying humbly to lead. For Tell, the rehashing of his past and the things he did that haunt him becomes central to his drive. He leaves behind the quiet and singular life he was living and takes on a greater cause. As he says, “Any man can tilt.” It’s the trajectory of all Schrader’s greatest protagonists—they almost always “tilt”—and without Isaac in the role, the whole film may have fallen flat as a result. There’s only so many times the same themes can be reinvented and dusted off as new. The notion that Schrader’s protagonists’ struggles mirror his own habitual revisitations isn’t lost on me. The one-note familiarity of The Card Counter ends up undermining rather than reinforcing everything we love about his work because ultimately, we don’t want a template if there’s no meat between the bones. Eventually, you have to turn a corner. Even the film’s ending ends up coming off as a misfired rehash of the euphoric moment that closes out First Reformed.
It’s hard to shake the notion that this film, despite its differing plot and cast, is a bit of a do-over. I don’t blame Schrader whatsoever for it. We all chase the high of our best-received works and tend to stick with what feels right to us, the stories that personally compel us. But the slight tiredness of this film extends outward, even to Schrader’s frequent collaborators like DP Alexander Dynan, who also did it better in 2017. The brooding, bare-bones shots still work—but they were immense in First Reformed and hit the viewer harder. They encompass the world of the film and add to the atmospheric intent of The Card Counter, but just doesn’t stack up in the same way. The visual dread is actually more apparent in Tell’s flashback scenes, which are shot in stark contrast using an extreme wide-angle lens. It’s something we don’t expect from Schrader and it snaps us back into the film with its breathtaking divergence.
The Card Counter is about the things we do and how they haunt us. About mentorship and forgiveness and personal responsibility. The film is quintessential Schrader, as you may have heard, and it hits all his usual marks. We know he does it well, centering on these types of stories, blowing them out of proportion, and bringing us down the rabbit hole all the way to the aftermath. I only ask in the future that, if we continue treading this path, he try and surprise us for a change.
Director: Paul Schrader
Writers: Paul Schrader
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Release Date: September 10, 2021
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer with bylines at Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. She spends too much time thinking about One Direction and the leftover moments writing poetry, fiction and screenplays. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET only on KPISSFM. She tweets @nikonamerica.