The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021)

Paul Schrader is one the cinema’s all-time great dumb guys. The Card Counter features Oscar Isaac as another of his God’s Lonely Men, an ex-con gambler who meets up with a kid and tries to set him on the right path in life. It’s a noir hero conceit: Isaac is a man who did something wrong, once, with a topical flair: the wrong thing he did is torture people at Abu Ghraib. He seems to see in the kid, a young man with an extremely dumb plan played by Tye Sheridan, a chance to atone for his crimes, to put some good back into the world. Though, given the narration he records in his Bressonian journal (Paul Schrader is nothing if not a man who has watched both Diary of a Country Priest AND Pickpocket), he has his doubts whether or not his sins can ever really be expiated. Also he hangs around in casino bars with Tiffany Haddish, who likes him because he’s Oscar Isaac and she’s a woman in a Paul Schrader movie.

Much of the film plays like a variation on Rain Man or The Color of Money, Isaac and Sheridan road tripping from casino to casino, the elder teaching the younger valuable lessons about life while trying to dissuade him from attempting to murder Isaac’s old torture instructor, Willem Dafoe. These scenes, and the gambling bits, are fun and Isaac plays them beautifully, all determinedly sad introversion. The film starts and gets its title from the way he cheats at blackjack, but he spends most of the movie playing poker. Which might be a comment about how his interacting with other people is a fundamental disruption of the balanced and static way he’s rebuilt his life after prison. Or it might just be that someone liked the title, but realized that poker is more cinematic. It doesn’t really matter.

None of it really matters, because like so many Schrader heroes before him, Isaac (and Sheridan) just can’t stop themselves from being dumb. No one in film history has been so obsessed with guys who just cannot chill out and let things go. Schrader’s heroes can’t quit because they see themselves as the center of the universe: their masochistic tortures are rooted in a fundamental narcissism. And Schrader can’t resist depicting them as the doomed romantic heroes they believe themselves to be. So a movie like The Card Counter is filled with wonderful images and sequences (Haddish and Isaac in a park of light; the gray-sheeted emptiness of Isaac’s modified hotel rooms; the horrifyingly woozy distortions of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks) that add up to mere aggrandizement of men who choose to do bad things simply because they refuse not to do them. But Schrader learned from Bresson that if you add just enough inexplicable beauty to your blank, foolish world, some nut will come along and find transcendence in it.

Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)


A sparkly meteor screams across the sky and crashes into a lighthouse. Three years later, Oscar Isaac shows up in Natalie Portman’s house. He’s her husband and has been missing for three years, is acting oddly and suddenly becomes very ill. On the way to the hospital, the two are captured and brought to a secret location, the edge of a shimmering wall of. . . something. Isaac escaped from the something and Portman heads into it, part of a team of women led by Jennifer Jason Leigh and including Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny. What they find in there is both easy to figure out (stuff is mutating), beautiful and scary and weird (stuff is mutating) and inexplicable (most of the why and a bunch of other side mysteries), explored in a mostly unsatisfactory blend of arthouse stillness and genre thriller scares, part of a burgeoning subgenre of sci-fi films that I suppose function as a counterweight to the more populist nonsense of superhero sc-fi. Director Alex Garland’s last film, Ex Machina, is a prime example, along with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (and his Blade Runner too, probably, I haven’t seen it) and so on. These films give an aura of respectability and complexity to an otherwise disreputable genre, and Annihilation is basically Predator for people who think Predator is dumb, but without any of the qualities that actually make Predator good (structure, pacing, action, coherence). Or Stalker for people who think Stalker is too arty and obscure.

While Annihilation is following its women on a weird mission plot, it’s mostly pretty good. The environment is new even if the situations are not: the group will of course be picked off one-by-one, either by unexpected creatures or their own tendency toward madness. Interspersed are flashbacks to Portman’s former life with Isaac, before he went on his mission into the unknown, which are mostly useless, designed to ground her character in the boring pyschology of Hollywood screenwriting convention, where women are only allowed to be motivated by something involving their role as wife and/or mother. These are actually flashbacks within a flashback, as the entire film is actually a dramatization of the story of her experience told by Portman to a team of radiation suit investigators led by Benedict Wong. How reliable a narrator Portman is, though, is not explored, potentially destabilizing the whole film, if not outright rendering the whole thing pointless. Is everything we’re seeing in her head, or is it what she’s telling Wong? Are the flashbacks real and the other stuff fake? Is she telling Wong about her relationship with her husband? Is it all phony, a story designed to satisfying her inquisitors but not actually the truth? I guess we’ll find out in the sequel? There are a lot of these little “mysteries” in Annihilation, things left unexplained that I suppose one could expend some brain energy trying to figure out, but I don’t know that it would be worth it, since the central mystery is both easily guessed and not that interesting, and it’s probably rendered moot by the film’s ending anyway. I’m curious about the tattoo that Portman and Rodriguez seem to share, for example, but I’d have to watch the movie again to try to solve it. But that’s probably not going to happen.

The Frances Farmer Show #16: The Last Jedi


We tracked him down and thawed Mike out of his carbonite prison for this special episode all about Star Wars and The Last Jedi. Topics include but are not limited to: Porgs, Galactic capitalism and the flaws inherent in the Republic, Ron Howard, wipes, and Mike’s dog.

You can listen to the show by downloading it directly, or by subscribing on iTunes or the podcast player of your choice.