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‘The Card Counter’ Review: A Gambler’s Existential Solitaire

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‘The Card Counter’ Review: A Gambler’s Existential Solitaire

A man writes in a room, alone in his head, alone in the world. We hear his words, his thoughts in voice-over which is a portal to his reality. It’s an intimate, uncontrollable voice, and what he says is often too incomprehensible to banal talk. Yet something bothers the man, which in turn bothers you. He may be a good man who has gone wrong or a bad man who has been right; The only thing for certain is that he jumped off Paul Schrader’s head.

The lonely man in a room is Schrader’s most indelible official signature, a defining image and idea in one. That figure most famously appears in his script for “Taxi Driver”, in which Travis Bickle, turned cabby killer, pours out his harsh and dreary thoughts; And he is the basis for the films directed by Schrader, most notably “Light Sleeper” and “First Reformed.” The lonely man returns in “The Card Counter”, a haunting, moving tale of soul and flesh, sin and redemption, love and death about another lonely soul, William Tell, who moves from pen to paper, to his present and his inexplicable Struggles with the past.

A soldier turned professional card player, Tell – Oscar Isaacs, a seductive force fielder – learns to count cards in prison, a talent he uses as he travels from casino to casino. Now, in anonymous, interchangeable gambling houses, he sits at blackjack and poker tables with strangers and sometimes other professionals, counting, betting and often winning. He is a disciplined player and an intelligent gambler, winning enough to avoid unwanted attention. To quote Travis Bickle, “days go by with regularity, one day indistinguishable from the next.” Each time, the tail spins a roulette wheel.

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It’s great to be in (and major) Shredder’s world when the movie is as good as “The Card Counter.” One of New Hollywood’s most enduring stalwarts, Schrader is best known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese, whose name features prominently in the credits of this new film. At the same time, Schrader has produced his own distinctive directorial collection informed by classical Hollywood and classic international art cinema, traditions he can put under productive stress like few others. It’s always interesting to see what he’s doing, even if he doesn’t have a firm hand on his stuff, hasn’t found his perfect (or nearly enough) shape and style – which is what he’s done here.

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