- The Paul Schrader renaissance (or should I say “resurrection”) is real. With 2017’s First Reformed and now 2021’s The Card Counter, Schrader is riding a career peak in his 70s.
- Oscar Isaac plays William Tell. Isaac is magnificent in The Card Counter and after this, when you take into account Ethan Hawke’s achievement in First Reformed, I would have to imagine actors are lining up to play the protagonist in Schrader’s next work—whatever that may be. Isaac is in nearly every scene and never makes a false move. He is exacting–intense. The diner scene with Tye Sheridan’s Cirk where Isaac’s character talks about his torturing experience –describing the noise of it all—is the best acting I have yet to see in 2021.
- Tell is driven by monomaniacal focus on routine. Schrader again opts for a boxier frame (though not as tight as First Reformed– here he uses 1.66: 1) to highlight that singular focus.
- Schrader has always been an intellectual. He wrote “Transcendental Style in Film” on Dreyer, Ozu and his main source of inspiration- Bresson. But Schrader has also always leaned into sensationalism as well and he seems to have found the right balance. The Card Player is largely minimalistic—but there are this ripe little opportunities for sweeps of style and visual flourishes. Isaac’s character is rich with depth and complexity. He is a savant at card playing- but he is also an ex-con and ex-soldier. Like Schrader’s Taxi Driver (Schrader wrote the script for it – and Travis Bickle is a cab driver and ex-soldier), Light Sleeper (drug dealer) and First Reformed (preacher) — The Card Counter slowly unveils the scarred mind of his protagonist through voice over narration and sort of journal writing catharsis/confession (certainly this is Diary of a Country Priest). This is a story of sacrifice (Tye Sheridan is our Jodie Foster here), paying for your sins (even a sort of flagellation), and redemption.
- The distinctive, vocal instrument infused musical score is from Robert Levon Been- the son of Michael Been who performed a very similar sounding score for Light Sleeper.
- In the flashbacks of Abu Ghraib Schrader uses this superwide distinctly vulgar lens to highlight the extremeness of this world- the heightening of the senses. This is a perfect marriage of style and content.
- Another stunning example of visual bravado is Schrader’s use of the Missouri Botanical Gardens exterior when La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) and William have a date together.
- Schrader deftly pulls the camera back through the interiors of Gordo’s (Willem Dafoe- a smaller role together but this is fourth archiveable film with Schrader) home as the audio of the climax carries on. This is such a better choice than showing the gruesome detail of the events.
- The final frame is a hold on two fingers of glass- hope for Isaac’s character- still a shot at redemption.
- A Must See film-top five of the year quality
Drake, most critics have been very complimentary of Isaac’s performance and neutral or negative on Haddish and Sheridan’s performances. What did you think of the other two?
@Haider– yeah not as strong, in her first scene Haddish had me worried, but she dials it back from that point on. I think they are both fine- but I would certainly listen if someone wanted to recast either role.
Isaac or Hawke?
Better performance in a Schrader movie?
@RujK- what do you think on this one? I mean Hawke has the stronger resume but he had a 20 year head start (first archiveable film is 1989 vs Isaac’s 2011). Isaac may be more talented I’d say, but Hawke always surprises me. I have them as a virtual tie in First Reformed vs. The Card Counter. Maybe Hawke in First Reformed if you forced me to pick now but I’ve had the benefit of seeing that twice now.
Is this the best film of 2021 so far?
@Harry- I’d love to see them all again before deciding but I have The Card Counter, The Green Knight and The Underground Railroad on the same level for 2021 so far.
That’s great to hear. The Green Knight is my favorite of the year so far, but I haven’t seen The Card Counter or The Underground Railroad, so that’s exciting. TGK page coming soon?
@Pedro- I’ll probably wait for a second watch of The Green Knight to do try to do it justice
Are you going to do a page for The Green Knight?
@Drake-I was wondering what do you think is the best film since the start of 2020? Are there any Masterpieces or MS/MP level films during this time?
@Malith- I do not believe so, still hoping to revisit some of these before making my 2020 and 2021 pages.
This is HR/MS for me (gonna lean towards MS) making it the strongest 2020s film I’ve gotten so far), I also watched First Reformed a few days ago which is MS/MP (leaning MP) for me so really been loving Schrader this week. That must make him one of the best 5 or so directors of the past 5 years then to have 2 this good.
I think the botanical gardens sequence is the best sequence I’ve seen from a film since 2020 started, watching this and First Reformed so close together it reminded me of the levitation/ surrealism trip scene, just a very visual journey to break up the film.
Not sure yet how I feel about the actors other than Oscar Isaac here, but Willem Dafoe does solid work as the “Harry Lime’ type figure.
Think the film would be much improved if the soundtrack was purely instrumental though…
I can’t wait for this one. It feels like so long since there’s been an awards season that I’ve really gotten excited for, but it was only really a couple of years ago since 2020’s was a little lacklustre. I’m hoping to get to Mishima at some point before this as well.
Somehow this one slipped by me. Just ordered very excited to watch.
You say “Schrader is riding a career peak in his 70s.”
If this is true is there any precedent?
@James Trapp- Clint Eastwood
@Drake – good call, he was 62 when he released his best film as a director, Unforgiven. His 3 best directed films he was the following ages:
Unforgiven – 62
Mystic River – 73
Million Dollar Baby – 74
This is a fascinating film, I have liked prior Oscar Issac performances but this was the strongest I have seen. Certainly there are obvious similarities between this and First Reformed. Not sure who’s performance I liked more, Issac or Hawke as they are both amazing. A movie that focuses on poker (even if it’s not the “true” subject matter) is always exciting for me. Enjoyed the attention to detail, explaining how everything works in his (Issac) world. Dafoe is always great. The Missouri Botanical Gardens sequence was splendid.
There were some flaws, did not love all of the song choices. I do have to say the narrative seemed a little all over the place and the final show down between Dafoe and Issac seemed anti-climatic I am not sure what was the point of the scene where they go to the prison but the Tye Sheridan character refuses to go inside. And speaking of Tye Sheridan’s character I did not love the performance there.