The Card Counter

Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish at a table

In The Card Counter we meet another of Paul Schrader’s lost loners, with Oscar Isaac joining actors as varied as Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver) and Lindsay Lohan (The Canyons) as the latest in a series of souls seeking salvation, redemption, expiation in a do-or-die struggle with their own human frailty.

In familiar Schrader first-person voiceover William Tell (Isaac) explains how he learned to count cards while in prison serving an eight-year jail term for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Tell goes into some detail explaining how card counting works – high value cards score minus one, low value cards plus one, the other cards nothing at all – and how it’s useful only when playing blackjack, where it can shift the odds away from the house just enough to confer an advantage on the counter. Aware of the fact that casinos will eject anyone they believe to be counting, Tell stays beneath the radar by not drawing attention to himself – he’s a medium stakes player who politely says thanks for a good game as he leaves the table to collect his modest winnings.

All this changes when he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man investigating the death of his father, also an Abu Ghraib guard, who’d come home from Iraq, got addicted to oxycodone and shot himself. And changes a bit more when Tell agrees, after a bit of hustling on her part, to go in with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a casino habitué who runs a stable of players. Off the three of them go on a journey to win big and make amends for sins committed in the past.

Schrader loves these dark, nighttime worlds but knows he’s in territory so familiar that he needs to make it clear he knows we know – hence a reference to The Cincinatti Kid early on – and there’s a lot in The Card Counter that we’ve seen before. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Tell lives a life of monastic asperity – when he checks in to the latest motel room he removes the paintings from the walls and then covers all the furniture with sheets tied on with twine. Oscar Isaac even apes some of the De Niro style early on, as does Tye Sheridan – do nothing, look intense, nod your head – so the presence of Tiffany Haddish as the warm, open, fun La Linda is a massive bonus. She’s the best thing in this film by a stretch.

Cirk and William at a table
What’s the deal? Cirk and Will



To be fair to both Isaac and Sheridan, when their characters’ personalities shift, so do their acting styles, and both men break free of the gravitational pull of old stars’ star turns decisively when Schrader starts leading them towards a showdown with Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the US Army major and “bad barrel” who made a “bad apple” of Tell and the other Abu Ghraib torturers.

Schrader doesn’t just have Bush-era politics in his sights. In the shape of Mr USA (Alexander Babara), a fellow card player who dresses in the stars and stripes and is followed by an entourage who chant “USA! USA!” whenever their champ eliminates a rival, he’s also got Trump-era America in his crosshairs. A scriptwriter’s cursory attempt to tie the two eras together.

While it’s a good film, I kept thinking, “Imagine if Martin Scorsese had directed this” all the way through (it was the Martin Scorsese Presents splash up front that did it), because no matter which way you turn him, Schrader isn’t a director’s director, or even a director’s second-unit director. But in spite of flabby do-nothing shots and regularly coming into a scene way too early, Schrader keeps the energy up and manages some neat transitions.

If it all starts to look like 1940s noir stylistically and in terms of framing the further into the journey it travels, that’s familiar Schrader territory too. And the added bit of melodrama to wrap things up neatly also suits The Card Counter very well.



The Card Counter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



I am an Amazon affiliate






© Steve Morrissey 2021









Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac and cat in Inside Llewyn Davis

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

30 June

 

Dave Van Ronk born, 1936

On this day in 1936, one of the great nearly men of popular music was born, in Brooklyn, New York, USA, into a Catholic family who identified as Irish. Dave Van Ronk was singing in a barbershop quartet by the age of 13 but left school early to play music, hang around in Manhattan and, eventually, ship out with the Merchant Marine. He played jazz before straying upon blues, and built up a small following as one of the few white men working in the genre. And from there broadened out into folk. As the folk revival of the late 1950s gathered pace, Dave almost became part of a folk trio, which would have been called Peter, Dave and Mary. But the gig instead went to Noel Paul Stookey, and so Peter, Paul and Mary it was. Instead Dave wrote songs and sang in Greenwich Village; he became the figurehead of the scene, his syncopated finger-picking style and big bearish personality gaining him many admirers. Dave “was king of the street, he reigned supreme” as Bob Dylan later put it. However, in spite of 20 albums and five decades of performing, few people outside of the aficionados ever got to hear of Dave Van Ronk. This was partly because he wouldn’t fly, couldn’t drive, disliked leaving Greenwich Village. But it was also simple bad luck – he did a beautiful, crack-voiced version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, which should have been a hit, except that Judy Collins beat him to it. And then, suddenly, the folk moment was over and the Tom Paxtons and Ralph McTells and Dave Van Ronks had to content themselves with driving on the back roads of success. Well at least he had talent, and did it his way.

 

 

 

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, dir: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)

The Coen brothers borrow the title of the 1964 album Inside Dave Van Ronk to tell the story of another nearly man, the fictional Llewyn Davis. Davis is not Van Ronk, and it’s pointless drawing comparisons between the two. Because Llewyn Davis is so clearly a Coen man. In other words, someone who’s doing what he thinks is his best but it isn’t really working for him. “Everything you touch turns to shit. Like King Midas’s idiot brother,” says Davis’s ex squeeze (Carey Mulligan, all over that Joan Baez look and attitude). We’re in Greenwich Village, early 1960s, folk music riding high, the clubs full of nice middle class kids in chunky sweaters, either on the stage or in the audience, while out in the wider world of music Llewyn Davis is trying to make a go of it.
The cat. We have to mention the cat, which Davis accidentally lets out of the apartment of the people he’s staying at, then chases down the road, then catches, then takes home to look after for a few days, because he can’t get back into the apartment now that the door has clicked shut behind him. And by “home” he means the couch of another long-suffering “friend”.

The strength of this film comes from its highly charged individual scenes – Davis abusing the hospitality of the Upper East Siders who have been bending over backwards to help the struggling artist; Davis being refused an advance by his ancient agent; on the road with a derisive heroin-addicted jazzman (John Goodman, nice); being told at the famous Gate of Horn club that he hasn’t got what it takes (and after singing his heart out too). And on it goes, heartbreak in instalments, to a lovely soundtrack, in venues that look lifted straight off the cover of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album.

The Coens have introduced us to Davis just as he’s obviously run out of time, credit at the goodwill bank of his various friends, couches to kip on. Something has to give. The songs Oscar Isaac tenderly sings are Dave Van Ronk’s. And they’re beautiful songs, though not quite “hooky” enough to make it. Davis isn’t “hooky” enough either, is chasing fame (or even just a living) the way he’s chasing the cat – elusive, indifferent – which actually turns out to be the wrong cat entirely.

As to whether the Coens are offering an explanation for Davis’s status as a nearly man, I’m not sure they are. There are suggestions that maybe Davis wants the prize for the wrong reason – money, rather than art – but only the vaguest hints. Instead the Coens seem intent on building a sustained mood piece in a minor key, highly polished, terribly sad. They are unusually fair to the music, make no snide digs at well brought up Americans singing in odd approximations of British folk accents, or of white kids who want to be black. And at the end, as Davis packs up his guitar having sung yet another night at the club he’s inhabited like a bad smell, and as he wanders outside into the back alley, the next act is announced. It’s Bob Dylan, we hear. But we don’t see. Success is not what Inside Llewyn Davis is about.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Oscar Isaac’s haunted performance
  • The music, including Dave Van Ronk’s songs
  • So many great performances – including Carey Mulligan, F Murray Abraham,
  • Bruno Delbonnel’s era-evoking cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Inside Llewyn Davis – Watch it now at Amazon