THE CARD COUNTER
Every so often at the movies, you'll hear, or maybe contribute to, patrons muttering a very specific kind of “Oh no.” It's different from the exclamatory phrase that'll sometimes accompany outré comedy routines (“Oh no he didn't!”), increasingly fraught action sequences (“Oh no – things just got so much worse!”), and the occasional musical. (“Oh no … Pierce Brosnan is gonna sing again!”) The “Oh no” I'm referring to is almost solely restricted to dramas, and as a response, a more involuntarily vocal one – the sound of viewers recognizing, with a gasp, an unexpected and horrific incident as the one the entire film has been quietly building toward.
I remember hearing this aghast audience reaction during 2014's Foxcatcher, when Steve Carell's John du Pont rolled down his car window and aimed a pistol at Mark Ruffalo's Dave Schultz. In another scene involving a firearm, I heard it during 2016's Manchester by the Sea, when Casey Affleck's grief-stricken Lee offhandedly lifted a policeman's revolver and pointed it at his own head. And I heard it this past weekend, from at least two separate parties, at my Saturday-afternoon screening of The Card Counter. These half-swallowed “Oh no”s, however, weren't the result of writer/director Paul Schrader's leading man holding a gun. He was merely holding a phone, looking at a photo, and reading a text message: “Wish you were here.”
If you've ever-so-gradually been returning to the cineplex over the past several months, you've likely gotten the same kick I have out of joining your fellow movie-goers in collective acts of laughing and cheering and, in case of A Quiet Place Part II, remaining devastatingly silent. But I live for those gut-level “Oh no”s, partly because they're so rare, and mostly because they're the sound of investment – of patrons so fully engaged in a film's story and characters that what's happening on-screen might as well be happening in the flesh, directly in front of them. That's the power of Schrader's The Card Counter. The film is saddled with improbabilities and a few too-obvious metaphors; the dialogue is occasionally banal; two of the three central portrayals don't fully work. Yet Schrader's hypnotic, sometimes thrillingly intense exploration of some of his favorite artistic themes – obsession, addiction, guilt, redemption – is such a singularly arresting achievement that it's easy to sail past its structural and performance flaws. Those “Oh no”s are earned. So is a massive “Oh yes.”
Schrader is the iconic screenwriter of Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ in addition to many of his own directorial offerings, among them American Gigolo, Affliction, and 2018's superb First Reformed. The Card Counter shares with those works an enigmatic, driven male protagonist whose ultimate motives may not be clear even to himself. Here, that protagonist is Oscar Isaac's William Tell, a former military interrogator now traveling the country as a professional gambler (and one whose name is an unmistakable alias). An eight-year stretch in Leavenworth for acts committed in Abu Ghraib gave Tell the time and opportunity to become an expert card counter, a talent he now employs to live modestly but comfortably through his poker and blackjack winnings. It's clear from the start that Tell has capitalized Issues. He drapes the furniture in each new motel room in white sheets from his suitcase, giving his rooms the impression of a prison cell or monastery; his only apparent distraction comes from the nightly scribblings he makes in his journal. Still, even though Tell's loneliness and unresolved angst are evident in his voice-over narration, the man seems to have carved out an existence that works for him. Enter – or rather, re-enter – Major John Gordo.
An enhanced-interrogation tactician who escaped culpability while Tell and other Abu Ghraib tormentors went to prison, Gordo (fiendishly played by Schrader mainstay Willem Dafoe) is the featured speaker at a casino convention that Tell, noticing his former superior's name, decides to attend. That's quite a coincidence. An even bigger one is that Tye Sheridan's Cirk (pronounced “Kirk”), the son of one of Tell's similarly sentenced officers, is also at Gordo's lecture, and recognizes Tell as one of his father's fellow defendants. Having arranged to meet with Tell later that night, Cirk reveals that his abusive father killed himself as a result of his detention, and explains his purpose in wanting to see Gordo in person: Cirk is going to kidnap the man, strip him naked, terrorize him in all the ways he terrorized his prisoners, and finally kill him. Would Tell, by any chance, want to help?
The Card Counter's central plotline consequently lies in Tell's efforts to steer the kid, and himself, right. The gambler convinces Cirk to join him on the road, plans to show him a life unrelated to revenge, and begins to amass a nest egg for the college dropout's future with the help of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a big-money backer who becomes Tell's and Cirk's friend and traveling companion. But this is Paul Schrader country, where things almost never go according to plan (and certainly not according to Hollywood's demand for narrative uplift). Within the bounds of the auteur's filmography, Schrader's latest release isn't as harrowing as most; you don't cast Haddish unless you want at least some reprieve from the weighty suffering, and there are just enough breezy moments and enjoyable scoops on card-counting strategies – plus a gorgeous sojourn through an electrified garden at night – to prevent events from being relentlessly dour. Yet even in its most lighthearted beats, you can sense the film's deliberate, quickening pulse. You may feel your own pulse quickening, too.
A master of the slow burn (not to mention any number of additional performance gifts), Isaac's portrayal is like the feature-length version of a true pro's poker face: He only shows you what he wants you to see. But the hush-voiced Isaac, with Schrader's slowly encroaching camera inching ever closer, keeps revealing fascinating cracks in Tell's facade. Whether recounting to Cirk the sights, sounds, and smells of his Abu Ghraib tenure or making quiet threats that hint at unimaginable reserves of cruelty, Isaac is spectacularly alert and forcefully present in The Card Counter. He would unquestionably be even finer if the under-motivated readings of Sheridan and Haddish – neither of whose characters are entirely believable – didn't so often suggest lines delivered on a first rehearsal. (Because she at least has her enviable charm to fall back on, Haddish's visible discomfort is more disappointing than Sheridan's, as the Ready Player One star nearly always looks as though he'd rather do anything but act for a living.) But Isaac is exceptional regardless, and even makes the traditionally troublesome conceit of wall-to-wall voice-over narration transfixing. When a performer is this wholly in character, you don't want to hear less of him. (This was a phenomenal weekend for Isaac fans, by the way, who were also treated to the first episode of his HBO Max limited series Scenes from a Marriage opposite A Most Violent Year co-star Jessica Chastain. After only one hour, it's already almost too much acting talent and chemistry to bear.)
With the possible exceptions of Sheridan – who does have his moments – and the casinos' chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” yahoos employed for overtly pointed, political effect, I actually didn't want less of anything in this impassioned and engrossing tale. The flashbacks to Abu Ghraib atrocities are nightmarish yet edited with tact, with our first entry into Tell's psyche startlingly photographed, by cinematographer Alexander Dyna, to resemble a literal nightmare. The tonal vacillations between untethered-loner nail-biter and riveting gambling exposé are so smooth that you're never sure, in a good way, whether you're in Taxi Driver territory or the land of Rounders. And Schrader's directorial finesse is on display in everything from The Card Counter's high-stakes Texas Hold-'em challenge to the movingly protracted shot of Tell and Cirk conversing on the edge of a sad motel pool. Plus, of course, there's that exquisite movie-going agony/joy of “Wish you were here.” Glad I was there.
Over the span of just a few years, character actor Paul Walter Hauser has become so accomplished at portraying uncouth, mouth-breathing losers that you never know whether his aggressively awkward-bordering-on-repellant persona is going to be absolutely right for a project (Richard Jewell; I, Tonya) or way too much for it (Cruella; BlacKkKlansman). Yet I can readily state that I've never appreciated the performer quite as much as I did in the new comedy Queenpins, the first entertainment I've seen Hauser in that made me want to hug the guy … if I weren't worried that doing so might accidentally loosen the man's bowels. This isn't a dig at Hauser. Just a nod to his character's admitted I.B.S.
The leads in writer/directors Aron Gaudet's and Gita Pullapilly's agreeably featherweight farce are actually Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, whose financially strapped suburbanites here devise a scheme to make millions off the illegal procuring and selling of supermarket coupons. (Their seemingly ridiculous yet effective scheme is evidently based on a true story, because how could it not be?) Former Veronica Mars and The Good Place co-stars who are no doubt real-life friends, Bell and Howell-Baptise demonstrate crackling comic chemistry, and they're a hoot together in their verbal and physical slapstick: confusedly enduring lessons in cyber-security from an irritated operative (a nicely salty Bebe Rexha); expanding their home business to sell semi-automatic weapons from the backseat of a minivan. Yet as terrific as Bell and Howell-Baptiste are, Queenpins' true ace-in-the-hole turns out to be Hauser.
At first, in his role as the supermarket-chain loss-prevention officer who grows wise to the women's chicanery, the actor's Ken Miller seems like Hauser's usual schtick: schlubby in dress and demeanor; mildly aggrieved verging on grouchy; loads dumber than he thinks he is. But as the movie progresses, Miller's clueless doggedness and unimpeachable (and likely virginal) rectitude begin to seem like traits eminently worth possessing; this endearing doofus really is trying to be the best employee he can be, and no amount of false leads or dead ends – or lack of brain power – are going to get in his way. Queenpins is marginal and meandering, and there are more smiles that genuine laughs, and it's pretty easily forgotten a day after viewing it. But the ideally cast Hauser is absolutely wonderful, and when Vince Vaughn shows up as the über-serious postal inspector (with a gun!) mortified to find Miller as his unwanted investigatory partner, the performers make for a delightfully mismatched pair. They're so much fun together – Hauser with his unembarrassed foolishness, Vaughn with his unshakable deadpan – that they even pull off a scene I had no business giggling at, with the twosome trapped in a stakeout car and Miller's delayed morning defecation reaching the point of no return. Never before have I so enjoyed Hauser on-screen. Totally wouldn't hug him, though.
For the first hour-plus of director James Wan's horror film Malignant, you may find it impossible not to derisively laugh – and because it's screening on HBO Max as well as at the cineplex, you're free to laugh at home with no one shushing you.
After an intensely ludicrous prelude set in a mental hospital, the movie's overcomplicated yet strangely nominal plot is established and we're invited to ask: Are a series of gruesome killings the cause of an actual, black-clad, stringy-haired killer, or the imaginary childhood friend of our abused and now-grown lead played by Annabelle Wallis? I, for one, didn't care. Despite some eye-catching lighting effects, eerie compositions, and the atypical presence of a sense of humor (much of it courtesy of sunny co-star Maddie Hasson), most of the performances are unwisely ramped up to 11, and the wretched dialogue is nearly always accompanied by thunderously overscaled music cues. For large stretches, Wan's latest feels like a horror-flick send-up on a particularly weak episode of Saturday Night Live. There's a lot of gore but little wit, and the unanswered questions – Does the murderer travel through electrical currents? What's with the underground-city subplot? – pile up so continually and fervently that you stop even trying to make sense of the damned thing. Oh yeah, and the killer, imaginary or not, keeps making phone calls in a growly baritone and cackling right before hanging up, like he's auditioning for a role as a Batman villain. An Adam West Batman villain.
But then, with less than a half-hour to go, screenwriter Akela Cooper finally unleashes the movie's narrative coup de grâce, and it is a doozy – a twist so off-the-charts nutty yet visually and thematically audacious that my jaw dropped, and I'm not sure I lifted it again until the closing credits. If you see enough horror movies over numerous decades, you begin to feel as though there's nothing left in the genre to shock you. Dear Reader reader, I was shocked at Malignant's dementedly brave, at times rather brilliantly executed final quarter, and somehow even more amazed that everything except the conversation immediately improved after the film's staggeringly sick/funny plot turn: the performances; the empathy; the choreography; the logic; the jokes. (The lone survivor of a blood- and viscera-soaked police station, to herself, after dialing 9-1-1: “Wait … why am I calling the police?”) It may still be too early to tell if Wan's ultimately exuberant gross-out leans more toward genius or abject stupidity. But just in case you, too, were beginning to think you'd seen it all, horror-wise, trust me: You ain't seen nothin' yet.