Venice 2021: The Card Counter, a Schrader to the bone [critique]

Oscar Isaac is haunted by America’s crimes in the new Paul Schrader, cleaner than ever.

It was already in Venice, four years ago, that Paul Schrader had unveiled First Reformed (a.k.a On the road to redemption), a film that earned him a real critical flashback, and even his first Oscar nomination for screenplay. As one is never better served than by oneself, the most famous of Calvinist filmmakers went so far as to rank his own film number 1 of his top cine of the 2010s, published in the review Movie Comment. “This is the culmination of my career”, he justified, suggesting that he had accomplished the mission he had set himself as a director, and that he had arrived at the end of the road.

What to do, then, when you have made your masterpiece? Which direction to take? The advantage with Paul Schrader is that he has never been a filmmaker seeking to reinvent himself, to change. On the contrary: he always gnaws at the same bone, more or less always shoots the same film. The Card Counter is a new variation on the eternal pattern of his cinema: a man alone, engaging in a very precise and routine occupation (driving taxis in Taxi Driver, sleep for money in American gigolo…), Moved by a self-destructive drive, will see his life turned upside down by the saving power of love. The last avatar of this Schraderian archetype today has the features of Oscar Isaac. He is a poker and blackjack player, coming out of a long prison sentence, which he was serving for torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Haunted by guilt, he will meet in turn a woman who wishes to hire him in his “stable” of players (Tiffany Haddish) and the son of one of his former fellow torturers (Tye Sheridan), who wishes to convince him to get revenge on the crazy officer (Willem Dafoe) who drove him to crime and escaped justice …

Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader reunited for a series

Schrader redeploys here a narrative and visual arsenal that will seem very familiar to fans of his film. Almost too much familiar, indeed. The shots of our lone antihero putting his thoughts down in his diary while drinking whiskey, the visual quotes taken directly from Diary of a country priest and to Pickpocket by Bresson, the hypnotic voice-over… A sort of “greatest hits”, bordering on caricature. Schrader strips his cinema, tracks down the essence of his style, purifies to death: stiffness of the actors, long places of silence, stripped-down frames, over-displayed gravity… He is helped in this search for minimalism and hieraticism by Oscar Isaac, chic and fearless , which blends superbly into the lineage of the schraderian masochistic samurai, initiated by De Niro in 1976.

But this ascetic quest too often gives The Card Counter a gaunt appearance. By dint of degreasing, Schrader sends certain essential inflections of the story (the meeting between the characters of Isaac and Sheridan rings false) and prevents the emotion from setting in. However, we know that his most beautiful films are those where passion suddenly starts to ignite his Zen compositions, as in American gigolo (his real masterpiece in our eyes). This is not totally the case here. Corn The Card Counter, even imperfect (remember that filming was interrupted in early 2020 because of the Covid epidemic, before resuming a few months later), nevertheless has a poisonous oddity that should seduce the most fans. hardcore of the filmmaker. Schrader, even in small artistic form, asks questions of haunting darkness.

The Card Counter, by Paul Schrader, with Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish… Released on December 1st. Trailer :

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