Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A lonely man who lives on the fringes of society seeks to atone for his sins by helping someone else. This is Paul Schrader’s bailiwick, and with Taxi Driver, First Reformed and other screenplays he’s written throughout his career, he’s created a genre of films all to himself. (His body of work could be called a “franchise”, a commercial connotation that I’m sure he would find darkly humorous.)
Like many auteurs, Schrader can’t resist revisiting themes that beguile him. Fortunately, he keeps finding different sides of the same protagonist to show us, like a jeweler examining a diamond’s flaws through different sides and angles. Schrader’s ruminations on the self-destructive nature of men isn’t for everyone, but when he’s on his game, as he is here, his films have a hypnotic quality that filmmakers half his age would be unable to replicate.
Oscar Issac plays William Tell, a former soldier at Abu Ghraib who served eight and a half years in a military prison for his part in using enhanced interrogation techniques on prisoners of war. He learned how to count cards while serving time, and spends his days driving from casino to casino, earning just enough to not get thrown out. His constant travels earn him a living, but they also help him avoid remembering the things he did in Iraq that he still feels guilty about. Chance encounters with Gordo, a former military contractor who “taught him the ropes” (Willem Dafoe), Cirk, the son of a fellow soldier at Abu Ghraib (Tye Sheridan) and La Linda, a former poker player turned tournament recruiter (Tiffany Haddish), offer Tell avenues for redemption. Things don’t go as planned, and violence becomes the only path left for Tell to purify his soul.
Issac, leaving big-budget spectacles behind for the moment, delivers one the best performances of his career. He gives Tell the cool, dark and dangerous facade of a human assault rifle. His slick-backed hair and zero tells belie the lethal intensity lurking just beneath the surface. Haddish dials things down substantially, giving her performance a warm vulnerability while retaining her trademark swagger. Schrader directs the proceedings in ways that clearly channel Scorcese, but with much more patience for observation. Scenes play out organically, with the actors taking the lead instead of the camera. The movie operates at a casual pace, and its payoff is not what you would expect if you haven’t been paying attention. The scenes of torture may be difficult to stomach, but Schrader knows that like all sins, if they aren’t acknowledged and confronted, they will always stay with you, no matter how long you try to run from them. Recommended.