Tag Archives: Paul Schrader

The Card Counter (2021) Review

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The Card Counter

Time: 111 Minutes
Cast:
Oscar Isaac as William Tell
Tiffany Haddish as La Linda
Tye Sheridan as Cirk
Willem Dafoe as Major John Gordo
Director: Paul Schrader

William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a gambler and former serviceman who sets out to reform a young man seeking revenge on a mutual enemy from their past. Tell just wants to play cards. His spartan existence on the casino trail is shattered when he is approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a vulnerable and angry young man seeking help to execute his plan for revenge on a military colonel (Willem Dafoe). Tell sees a chance at redemption through his relationship with Cirk.

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I had been hearing about The Card Counter for a while, it would be Paul Schrader’s next movie starring Oscar Isaac in the lead role. I liked Schrader’s writing work on Martin Scorsese’s movies like Bringing Out the Dead, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and I really liked his last directed movie First Reformed. So I was looking forward to what he would do with The Card Counter and he didn’t disappoint.

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As you can probably predict already, The Card Counter is yet another character study from Paul Schrader about a lonely protagonist with degrees of self-destructive behaviours (like Taxi Driver and First Reformed) and is suffering with guilt and suicidal tendencies. You might say that the story is treading familiar ground and there are certainly similar themes especially when it comes to morality, but I found it compelling nonetheless. The film does a good job at getting into the mindset of his character, and we learn more about him and how he’s trying to leave behind a past he can’t escape. The plot might seem to meander a bit as it is about Oscar Isaac’s character going from place to place with Tye Sheridan playing cards and gambling while interacting with people, and we learn more about him during this. However I was invested in what was happening all the way through. Don’t watch the incredibly misleading trailer, the film is nothing like how it represents the movie and you’d be only doing yourself a disservice. Despite the title and about the main character being a gambler, it’s very much not that kind of movie. Essentially, The Card Counter is about consequences and guilt, with focus on the acts of torture during the War on Terror. It’s particularly about the problems that veterans face and the responsibility in systematic torture at Abu Ghraib prison, especially when it comes to Isaac’s character and how he was involved. The Card Counter is firmly a slow burner and is very meditative, so don’t expect that hour and 50 minute runtime to fly by. However I thought that pacing really worked for the film.

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There’s a great cast in this movie, and everyone plays their parts well. Schrader’s next troubled protagonist William Tell is played by Oscar Isaac and this might be the best performance I’ve seen from him. He’s very believable and convincing, coming across as calm, mysterious and slick on the outside, but there’s clearly some stuff simmering beneath the surface. He’s superb in the part and carries the movie excellently. There’s also a really good supporting cast in Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish and Willem Dafoe. Sheridan gives one of his best performances as a younger man who Tell tries to steer onto a better path. Haddish was a great counter to Isaac, she’s very different to him which makes their relationship so much more interesting. Dafoe is only in a few scenes but plays a critical role and as usual plays his part fantastically.

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Paul Schrader directs, and his work here is great. He certainly uses familiar techniques, such as the voice over from the protagonist. It even has scenes of the protagonist lying in his bed or writing in a journal at a desk paired with a liquor of their choice (just like First Reformed). Nonetheless it fitted very well with this story. It’s a very well shot movie, I particularly liked the long takes, and some of the visuals could even be hypnotic and dreamlike. The two highlights for me were a long take passing through a prison with a fish eyes lens, and the other has Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish at a light show which was visually stunning to watch.

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The Card Counter is a stylish, layered and thematically rich character study. It’s excellently written and directed by Paul Schrader, and has great performances from the cast, especially from Oscar Isaac in the lead role. It’s definitely not for everyone, as I said it’s a slow burn character drama, not a fast paced ‘gambling movie’. However, if you’ve like some of Schrader’s other work like First Reformed, I think you’ll enjoy The Card Counter.

First Reformed (2018) Review

Time: 135 Minutes
Age Rating: 860949[1] Violence, suicide & content that may disturb
Cast:
Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller
Amanda Seyfried as Mary
Cedric Kyles as Pastor Jeffers
Victoria Hill as Esther
Philip Ettinger as Michael
Director: Paul Schrader

A pastor (Ethan Hawke) of a small church in upstate New York spirals out of control after a soul-shaking encounter with an unstable environmental activist (Philip Ettinger) and his pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried).

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I’ve been hearing some really positive things about First Reformed for a while. Paul Schrader is known as a writer, writing the scripts for such films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. However Schrader has been less successful in directing from what I can tell. One movie of his that I did watch was Dog Eat Dog which was decent but not much more than that. That cycle ended with First Reformed (which he also wrote), which is pretty great. With a great, dark and captivating script, led by an excellent performance by Ethan Hawke, First Reformed is one of the best films of the year.

First Reformed is just under 2 hours long and from start to finish it had me riveted, but you do need to know the kind of movie you’re going into. It is very slow paced and mostly consists of Ethan Hawke’s character talking to people. The comparisons to Taxi Driver are warranted and make sense (it’s not just because Paul Schrader wrote both or that both films are narrated by the main character). It’s a dark character driven story, with a dark and haunting vibe and a potentially unreliable narrator. First Reformed covers many topics, faith/religion (obviously), activism, religion in today’s society, environmentalism and much more with its main character played by Ethan Hawke. If there’s any noticeable complaint that could be made is that First Reformed tries to take on so many topics and themes, maybe too many. I’ll need to rewatch it to see if it manages to cover all of these themes successfully but from my one viewing I think it really worked. The ending is going to be something that people are going to feel divided over, because its either too insane, too unbelievable or too abrupt. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say to not take things at surface value and try to look deeper. I think I know what the implications of the ending are but I know that a lot of people are going to have different opinions about it. I personally think the ending worked very well.

Ethan Hawke is absolutely fantastic, this is his best performance of his career, and for Ethan Hawke, that is saying a lot. He’s very subtle in his performance, it’s not very showy. His character of Ernst Toller is dealing with a lot of issues (even before the movie begins) and finds himself really conflicted after meeting this one person played by Philip Ettinger. You really get to see his transition and change over the course of the movie as he goes through his journey. First Reformed is also riding a lot on Ethan Hawke, there is not a scene that Ethan Hawke isn’t in, and thankfully Hawke did a masterful job. Although the main highlight is Hawke, the other actors do quite a good job in their roles as well. Amanda Seyfried was great in her role, Philip Ettinger in his limited screentime did very well in his scenes and Cedric Kyles (also known as Cedric the Entertainer) was also really good.

Paul Schrader’s direction of First Reformed is very effective. This film is shot in 4:3, pretty much like how A Ghost Story was shot, giving it an older and intimate feel to it, it makes the whole movie feel a lot more claustrophobic. There is one trippy sequence that happens in the second half of the movie that will probably take most people out of the movie, and yes it was very bizarre but I thought it was effective. There isn’t much music, but when it’s there it’s rather subtle and adds a lot to the movie. There is a really haunting vibe that First Reformed has from start to finish and that added a lot to it.

First Reformed has already shown itself to be not for everyone, it is slow moving, it’s quite dark, it is very different and at times bizarre but it really worked for me. I might need to revisit it, but from my first viewing I thought everything about it was great. Add on top of that a career best performance from Ethan Hawke, and you’ve got yourself a fantastic film, and one of the best of 2018. I feel like I’m going to like this movie even more the more I think about it and revisit it, it does seem like it would make repeat viewings interesting.