Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
United Kingdom/China/USA, 2021. Focus Features, LB Entertainment, Astrakan Film AB, Bona Film Group, Convergent Media, Enriched Media Group, HanWay Films, One Two Twenty Entertainment, Redline Entertainment. Screenplay by Paul Schrader. Cinematography by Alexander Dynan. Produced by Lauren Mann, Braxton Pope, David M. Wulf. Music by Robert Levon Been, Giancarlo Vulcano. Production Design by Ashley Fenton. Costume Design by Lisa Madonna. Film Editing by Benjamin Rodriguez Jr..
Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell, an ex-con whose return to the outside involves him spending all of this time in casinos, using the card-counting skills he honed in prison to positive outcomes on the tables of various games that his hypnotic narration, accompanied by a haunting score by Robert Levon Been and Giancarlo Vulcano, describes to us in detail. In the motels that he stays in, William carefully covers all the furniture with sheets and removes all colour and texture from the rooms, as if to reflect the artificial life he grew accustomed to behind bars, while the spaces he occupies in his waking hours are just as devoid of reality, casinos are his pastime but they are also a purgatory, places with no windows or clocks and no passage of time, their inhabitants zombies with a constant, unending desire for more. Into this fascinating twilight world come two figures who set him on a different path, the first La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), an enterprising gambling manager who wants to set him up in high-stakes poker games for both their profits, which he resists because he, who likes to avoid trouble by keeping his profits steady and low, believes is the route to uncontrollable debt. Wandering through one casino’s convention rooms, William stumbles upon a presentation on weapons security being delivered by a retired army major Gordo (Willem Dafoe), where Isaac runs into young Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who tells him that that his own father served in Abu Ghraib with William, and like him was scapegoated by the likes of high-ranking officers (including Gordo) who never served time thanks to their atrocities never having been caught on camera. Worried that the young man’s plans to get revenge on Gordo are serious, William agrees to La Linda’s plan after all, taking Cirk under his wing as they tour a series of blandly lit, sparsely populated casinos with the plan of making one big cash score to take care of everyone. What happens instead is a fascinating battle of wills that become more disturbing as we plumb the depths of William’s memories of Abu Ghraib, which are filmed using image distortion that turns the very convincing recreation of the nightmare of that place into a perverted video game. Writer-director Paul Schrader sets this drama in as different a world as was seen in First Reformed as you could imagine, but the wrestling that his protagonist must do with his soul is situated in the same realm and is just as compelling thanks to the atmosphere he presents. Isaac’s William isn’t as palpably challenged by his crisis of faith as Ethan Hawke was, the character has a much cooler acceptance of his world thanks to our catching up with him well after the situation that broke him, but the voyage into the moral voids that the worlds this film explores still have dramatic stakes, helped by the character’s being perfectly underplayed by Isaac in the lead.
Venice Film Festival: In Competition