If I had to choose a single word to describe Paul Schrader’s directorial style, that would be it: Efficient. In his movies (the more recent ones, anyway), not every frame needs to be a painting; sometimes, telling the story only requires the bare essentials.
The Card Counter epitomizes this devotion to restraint and subtlety, operating in a world that seldom gets more complex than wides and closeups (the occasional excruciatingly slow push-in notwithstanding). And within this visual simplicity lies transcendent beauty and elegance. There’s a sort of mundane poetry to the way that Schrader frames his environments, from the oppressively static establishing shots to the images of claustrophobically empty spaces to the lingering inserts of such ordinary objects as a pot of stale coffee or a stainless steel toilet. Even his Steadicam oners are purely functional and almost entirely devoid of excessive flashiness, existing for the sole purpose of moving the characters from Point A to Point B. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but the few maximalist flourishes are confined to the protagonist’s nightmares and daydreams—and they’re all the more impactful for their rarity.
As for the screenplay… well, Schrader is certainly consistent. I thoroughly dissected his favorite themes and plot structures in my First Reformed review… and there’s honestly not much new to add to the discussion. While he makes a valiant effort to subvert the pattern that he established with Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder, and Hardcore (Oscar Isaac’s William Tell, who desperately wants to avoid violence, is a clever evolution of the Travis Bickle archetype), he never deviates too far from the familiar formula.
And that predictability is absolutely fine. Like Yasujiro Ozu, Schrader prefers to work with a very small selection of narrative ingredients, but he always manages to introduce just enough variation to keep his recipes fresh, exciting, and satisfying.
And I'll happily savor the flavor of every film that he produces.