On The Card Counter & Malignant
SEPTEMBER 14, 2021
Tiffany Haddish and Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter.
illiam Tell (Oscar Isaac), the protagonist of writer-director Paul Schrader’s newest movie, The Card Counter, joins the ever-expanding stable of lonely, isolated male characters around which Schrader has formed the majority of his films since Taxi Driver, his 1976 screenwriting breakthrough. Alienation drives the bulk of Schrader’s
oeuvre; in The Card Counter’s case, that alienation is mostly rooted in Tell’s traumatic experiences working as an Abu Ghraib-stationed military interrogator (i.e., torturer) and the eight-and-a-half-year prison stint which resulted from it. Too afflicted by demons to return to life as if nothing had happened, Tell, presumably estranged from family and his onetime friends, now spends nearly all his time — he estimates between eight and 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week — pinballing between states and the casinos which blemish them. He dives into low-stakes games of blackjack and poker with a finesse that ensures he never return to his newest hotel room, always paid for in crisp bills, indebted. When he ends his days reflecting into a well-tended-to diary, it’s his way of cleaning his wired brain — like the cerebral equivalent of wiping down the counters of a house before familiar dust settles again.
Schrader uses Tell partially as a conduit to ruminate on the resounding ugliness of the war on terror, much like how the principal characters of, say, American Gigolo (1980), Light Sleeper (1992), and First Reformed (2017), provided a pretext for Schrader to mull over how sex work, drug dealing, and religious disillusionment, respectively, can have a detaching effect on people. (Tell’s nightmares and memories of torturing are shot with a scarily visceral fish-eye effect that makes you nauseous; you feel almost smacked by them.)
But while it’s predictably prone to insight and fortifyingly cynical, The Card Counter isn’t quite as narratively assured as any of those earlier-mentioned movies. The storyline doesn’t have much momentum; sometimes the familiarity of its general arc feels greatest-hitsy. (The final scene is a more artful duplicate of the one in American Gigolo, for instance.) But The Card Counter is still rewardingly probing and powerfully acted by Isaac, picking dutifully not just at the often-obscured-in-movies vileness of the military-industrial complex, but the slipperiness of redemption, the complicatedness of “saving” others, and the difficulties of assimilating back into a “normal” routine after not merely enduring but participating in the unthinkable.
Three people enter Tell’s life early on in The Card Counter who throttle it out of its greyed anonymity. One is Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the angsty college-dropout son of one of Tell’s late colleagues. Another is Maj. John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the now-private contractor who trained Tell and Cirk’s dad, is now on the lecture circuit (one tour stop is a casino Tell visits), and is the impetus behind Cirk approaching Tell in the first place. (Believing Gordo ultimately responsible for his father’s suicide, Cirk is obsessed with getting revenge, and thinks Tell may be interested in helping him; Tell, conversely, wants to help Cirk, whom he grudgingly takes on the road for a while, have the rewarding life he himself may be too late to experience.)
There’s also, arguably most impactfully on Tell, La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a charming, silver-tongued gambling agent who offers to both back him and also, increasingly, becomes an object of romantic affection who wants to understand why it is this handsome drifter with darkly hooded eyes and slicked-back hair is so willfully mysterious. Cirk and La Linda inspire Tell to look toward the future in ways he ostensibly hasn’t in years. Cirk, who is also swimming in debt, becomes a sort of project for Tell: the latter concludes that he’s going to try to win enough money to get this tormented young man out of his financial binds and hopefully steer him from his vengeful plotting. And La Linda’s very presence suggests that maybe, even after all that Tell has seen and done, there is someone around willing to chart a new personal path with him, no questions asked.
Sheridan and Haddish never come off quite as comfortable in Schrader’s pointedly benumbed and colorless world as Isaac, an actor who can practically frame his demons with his eyes, and frequent Schrader collaborator Dafoe do. (Though in certain moments Haddish, who has almost exclusively worked in broad comedy, can be revelatory, and has good chemistry with Isaac.) Yet the slight offness of Sheridan and Haddish, who struggle sometimes with Schrader’s stylized dialogue, doesn’t detract from the movie. It actually improves it, I think, supplementing how, so often in his post-military, post-prison life, there aren’t many interactions Tell has that feel completely “right” to him.
There’s something off about the ending of the movie, too, but not in the same unintentionally beneficial way as those sometimes inelegant performances. It feels a little too easy in a methodically blurry movie that is only sporadically punctuated by real clarity, like the simple wonder of an outdoor light show La Linda and Tell practically float through hand-in-hand mid-movie. But even if the film’s finale doesn’t feel quite right in its optimism, I at least admired its undergirding idea: that even clumsily attempting to rise above darkness is much better than sitting passively until you’re devoured by it. Even after decades of essentially telling the same story, Schrader’s cynicism hasn’t totally consumed him yet.
ike The Card Counter, James Wan’s (2011’s Insidious, 2013’s The Conjuring) newest horror offering, Malignant is steeped in seemingly inescapable darkness. But unlike The Card Counter, which exists in a state of bone-deep bleakness, Malignant’s darkness exists between
quotation marks. It’s a horror movie aiming to be more creepy-fun, almost carnivalesque, than earnestly frightening; it gamely tries on and then discards narrative expectations with a clownish grin. Wan treats horror like a plaything here, and the gonzo result is among the most fun times I’ve had at the movies all year. (Malignant’s impressive commitment to lunacy has a close competitor in M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, which also had a kind of audacity you couldn’t help but happily laugh along with.)
There’s a lot of plot in Malignant; it’s better to let the majority of it just happen to you. But what can safely be said about it here is that, following a violent domestic spat at the beginning of the movie, a dark-haired young woman named Madison (Annabelle Wallis) falls asleep and has a dream that her abusive husband (Jake Abel) has been killed by a home intruder. When she wakes up and happens upon a gnarled body in the living room, though, it’s clear she wasn’t dreaming at all. How did she get a front-row seat if she knows for a fact that she was in bed?
The narrative wastes no time zooming toward narrative checkpoints not unfamiliar to horror fans. Madison keeps having nightmares about the same comically gymnastic home-invader, dressed gothically and with wet black tendrils covering their face, killing people, then sees next-day news reports confirming she wasn’t dreaming. Of course, Madison usually has some blood and grime on her when she wakes up; her body is more exhausted than it would be from merely tossing and turning all night, too. Are we dealing with a haunted house, a possession, a serial killer on the loose? The answer is, I suppose, technically all three, but so much not in the ways you might think that this can’t really be counted as a spoiler or indication of what subgenre under which Malignant can be classified. The highest compliment I can give this bold movie is that, quality aside, I haven’t seen anything like it.
A common complaint lodged at many horror movies — one I’ve offered myself plenty of times, in fact — is that they explain “what’s going on” during the last act so much more than they need to that much of the good and scary stuff coming beforehand is undone. Malignant is the rare breed of horror film that actually improves the clearer its picture becomes, though I think this is because it’s not exclusively nor very seriously trying to be genuinely scary. The picture we’re left with is objectively bananas; it looks better the less intensely you scrutinize it. Watching Malignant, you sense a smiling Wan nudging you to have as good a time as he is; after a while, his friendly elbowing gets to you, and soon you’re smiling with him.
The Card Counter: B+