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Movie Review: 'The Card Counter' Proves We Need More Anger From Our Movies

Paul Schrader is angry.

OK, yeah, that’s a little like saying “water is wet” when you’re talking about the guy who began in the 1970s as the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and made his directing debut with the gutting Detroit assembly-line drama Blue Collar. But regardless of how much this may or may not have been true in the past, recently Schrader’s anger feels very personal. His 2017 movie First Reformed was full of incendiary fury with a priest confronting his internal struggles while also awaking to the devastation of our rapidly changing climate. And if his new film, The Card Counter, aims for something a bit less apocalyptic, its rage is just as palpable.

Oscar Isaac is our card counter, a man with a hazy past and an obsessive control of his present, who goes from casino to casino playing blackjack and poker, and who knows exactly how far to push the rules without causing problems—casinos don’t care if you count cards, he says, as long as you don’t win too much.

That hazy past is revealed, though, in a nightmarish sequence that shows Isaac to have been an American soldier at Abu Ghraib, as Schrader uses what may be the most extreme lens you’ve ever seen to travel through the prison and its horrifyingly familiar images, a kind of dynamic Boschian version of that shameful place. And we soon see that while Isaac was not without his sins, he also paid the price for the people above him who laid the groundwork for this torture—and that at least one of those people may soon have his own comeuppance, a potential that jolts Isaac’s hyper-controlled persona.

As happens with Schrader, this forces Isaac to confront his guilt, the disease in our society, and the prospect of forgiveness, and it opens the story up to huge philosophical questions. It’s heady stuff, but it’s wrapped in an expertly made thriller that maintains a slow, sizzling buzz. Schrader’s a director who’ll still sincerely use a shot of his character driving down a nighttime highway, with their pensive face superimposed over the moving car, and while this sort of thing might feel outdated in lesser hands, Schrader knows how well it can create a mood and sustain a quiet crackle.

But however muted much of the film’s tone may be, there’s no doubt about Schrader’s boiling anger. He’s entirely unafraid of talking about things other people seem to shy away from—why are we not all outraged? How is that possible? Escapism is just fine, but it’s no secret there’s a lot to be angry about these days, and our art needs to reflect that. Otherwise, we’re just sticking our heads in the sand. The Card Counter proves: we need more anger from our movies.

The Card Counter is in theaters.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.