“Card Counter,” written and directed by the austerely insistently un-vibrant moralist Paul Schraeder, is composed to a certain slow metronomic beat. It ticks-ticks-ticks slowly, like the sound, inaudible to human ears of someone’s brain counting cards, waiting for the right moment to bet modestly enough to win small.
But bet on what? He’s spent decades placing wagers on the reasons for our bottomless capacity for American soul sickness. It’s how he makes films – he uses time and the slow burning accumulation of wrath and rage and bad vibes and bad faith to create a hallucinatory kind of tension that eventually has nowhere to go and nothing to do but explode. God bless the man; the most American filmmaker we have, making little European-sized films with patient actors who bank their fires and get his beat.
But Schraeder thinks like Dostoyevsky re-writing “Crime and Punishment’s” Raskolnikov for Americans falling from grace in slow, motion. He specializes in the polluted. In this case it’s Oscar Isaac’s William Tell, an Abu Grahib guard who did hard time for torture (“A few bad apples?” as Don Rumsfeld put it), while higher ups skipped out and made a fortune selling security and weapons systems when their time in the cauldron was up.
Willem Dafoe plays that part with the efficiency of a K-Car. Now he’s met an unlikely kid played by Ty Sheridan who seems to be offering opportunities for revenge or chaos. It’s all impossible of course. Because everyone in Shraeder’s world is guilty, nobody is. Tell tries to do something right, and the audience is left destitute because there’s nothing right to be done – in Schraeder land, it’s all too little too late – God has left the building. Turn out the lights when you’re done praying.
Jon Robin Baitz is an American playwright, screenwriter and two time Pulitzer Prize finalist.