Festivals: Review of “The Card Counter”, by Paul Schrader, with Oscar Isaac and Willem Dafoe (Official Competition) – # Venecia2021

By Víctor Esquirol, from Venice


Published on 09-02-2021

At the age of 75, the legendary American screenwriter and director confirms with this story of a poker player the good time he is going through after The priest / First Reformed (2017).

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.A man walks into a motel room, opens the 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 performed with patience and precision that can only have been acquired with experience, with a few previous repetitions that in no way could be counted. But this man, precisely, is an expert in keeping track of what in principle can only be processed by a super-computer.

His own voice-over has been in charge of the presentations: as a child, he tells us, he could not bear the feeling of being confined, being confined in small spaces. In other words, when the game began, a cruel dealer awarded him the claustrophobia card. But the Bressonian protagonist of this story, played by a huge Oscar Isaac, refuses to accept those hands that, from the outset, have no chance of being victorious. 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 sustenance. The man who covers everything in gray, 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 nods he 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 vast 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 honed over the years, he will almost certainly win. But he also knows that the amount of money he takes out of the bank should never attract the attention of the room managers. First of all, in case you missed the motel scene, you intend to fly under the radar. The muted tones of his clothes are now understood as a 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 O Taxi Driver it is slammed against that world that, with good reason, it hates so much. The collision takes shape, this yes, with that neatness in the staging with which he surprised us so much in his last film to date. A sobriety (only broken in some moments of sought ugliness in fisheye deformation) that shields his pessimistic speech against possible critical voices that, for the time being, can no longer play the accusatory card of insanity.

A very sane Schrader, in full control of his faculties, surrounds us with a thriller whose murkiness is purely a symptom of a nation (United States) and times (ours) addicted to the most stupidly destructive gambling. Suddenly, The Card Counter it comes out of that toxic fantasy of the casinos and loads the inks in politics. It is genre cinema with a conscience that, as has already been said, lashes out. Now the green carpet of the goddess fortune is stained with the blood of a fight against terrorism in which no human rights are respected; Now we understand that in a country in debt up to its eyebrows, its people equally feel how the water reaches their neck.

And, in this post-traumatic stress situation, people lose the privilege of free will. Someone tells Paul Schrader that there are bad apples in the basket, but he knows that the problem (really) is in the container itself. The Card Counter he wonders about the possibility of prospering in such a context and, of course, the story inevitably is tinged with tragedy. There are those who believe that by controlling the numbers, they will tame chance, but, above this, we find a destination that is already written and that will not admit the slightest change in its wording. So what is 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 looking at everything from the darkest hole, a saving ray of light can be glimpsed.

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Festivals: Review of “The Card Counter”, by Paul Schrader, with Oscar Isaac and Willem Dafoe (Official Competition) – # Venecia2021