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With: Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish, Willem Dafoe, Alexander Babara, Bobby C. King, Kat Baker, Bryan Truong, Dylan Flashner, Adrienne Lau, Joel Michaely, Rachel Michiko Whitney
Written by: Paul Schrader
Directed by: Paul Schrader
MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality
Running Time: 109
Date: 09/10/2021

The Card Counter (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Flush Money

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

With The Card Counter, as with his First Reformed, writer/director Paul Schrader has made an intense, rigid, fiercely personal drama that may seem out of place to today's moviegoers, but reaffirms the artistry of cinema.

Will Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a meticulous, immaculate gambler, traveling from one casino to another, covering everything in his hotel rooms with white sheets, and winning just enough money to live on without calling attention to himself. He does all this, perhaps, to escape the memories of working as a torturer at Abu Ghraib while serving in the Army. A woman named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) offers to bring him into a "stable," where he'll work with backers and earn more money.

At another hotel, he meets a young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan). He learns that Cirk is the son of a man who also worked at Abu Ghraib, and whose life was ruined because of it; he wants revenge on the former commanding officer (Willem Dafoe). Instead, Will decides to take La Linda up on her offer and raise money to get Cirk's life back on track.

Certainly The Card Counter will be a hard sell, especially to viewers that are not familiar with Schrader's hero, French filmmaker Robert Bresson (1901-1999), whom he is emulating here. In films like A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, Bresson used an austere style, with very little animation in his performances (he referred to actors as "models"), to uncover deeper meanings in his images. Schrader succeeds beautifully with this method, even if, for some, his work will be hard to decipher. It may not always make emotional sense for the characters to do what they're doing, for example, but it works symbolically.

In addition to the many strikingly considered and composed shots of hotels and gambling rooms, Schrader creates many other haunting images that are carefully layered in. There's the hotel room eerily covered in white sheets, the garden of lights that Will and La Linda wander through one night, the red-white-and-blue-clad gambler that chants "U.S.A.!" every time he wins, and especially the horrific, deliberately nightmarish scenes of Abu Ghraib, shot with a special lens that makes everything feel rolling and off-kilter.

The final image in The Card Counter, both uncomfortable and beautiful, will send viewers out into the world knowing they've really seen something.

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