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The Hand You're Dealt 

The Harder They Fall and The Card Counter

click to enlarge Spotting anti-maskers at the grocery store.

The Harder They Fall

Spotting anti-maskers at the grocery store.

THE HARDER THEY FALL. The Western, uniquely American in that it distills and blends far-flung influences into something distinctly flavored by its struggles and settings, is a most stubborn genre. It refuses to die but, by and large, it also refuses to adapt or evolve. There has been potential, since the earliest days, for Western movies to comment on contemporary culture, using the frontier as both allegory and narrative veil. But, like so many mistakenly entrenched aspects of American culture, it seems to be too obsessed with itself to grow or change.

Instead, Westerns continue to fall primarily into one of two camps. Among the first are quasi-reverent paeans to a simpler, if more terrible time, when stoics carved out a place for themselves — and their settler descendents, by extension — in an unforgiving landscape. While some of these are brave or honest enough to occasionally address the depravity, violence and inequity of their time and place, they also adhere to certain mechanics of plot and motif we have all come to expect: damsels in distress, violent men attempting to eschew violence, the inevitable, essential gun battles. These movies do it by the numbers, which is satisfying, if not particularly provocative. Most of us took in the fundamentals of Western cinema with our mothers' milk, after all.

The second school of Old West moviemaking attempts to recast, if not reinvent, the genre by exaggerating its style, particularly in terms of casting, cinematography, costuming and music. In ramping up and ostensibly modernizing the aesthetics, one would think these examples might shift or re-shape the genre, say something new.

At least that's what I hoped for The Harder They Fall, the second Western feature by British polymath Jeymes Samuel (I've not yet seen 2012's They Die By Dawn). It would be unfair to say I was disappointed because the movie is exciting and impressive, and boasts a stellar cast, but it didn't do what I hoped and believed it could.

Black Western cinema isn't new but as Westerns in general have decreased in number, so, too, have those made by and starring Black artists, perhaps disproportionately. And Samuel (aka The Bullitts) brings a fresh perspective to this genre-within-genre, with beyond-Spaghetti camera moves, a throbbing, dub-inflected soundtrack of original music and the ability to gather one of the most powerful, exciting casts in recent memory. But it's a case of the whole being somehow less than the sum of its parts.

The main weakness here falls to the writing, which may be simply down to inexperience, though Samuel had veteran Boaz Yakin sharing the screenplay credit. It's a story as old as stories: A boy orphaned by Outlaw A becomes an outlaw himself and gets the gang back together when Outlaw A reappears on the scene, lo these many years later. Climactic shoot-out ensues. There's only so much one can do with this shopworn stuff, even when the dialogue comes from the mouths of Regina King, Zazie Beetz, Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield. Exquisitely designed and impeccably acted though it may be, it just feels a little stale. 139M. NETFLIX.

THE CARD COUNTER. To reckon at all successfully with isolation, violence, misanthropy, vengeance, atonement and salvation in a work of art is a challenge unmet by most. To do so over an exceptionally prolific half-century career and to be doing it now as well as ever? That's the apparently exclusive domain of Paul Schrader who, with The Card Counter, reaffirms himself as one of the prickliest and most vital figures in American cinema.

There have been highs and lows in Schrader's career, periods where the industry or the audience or both seemed to have moved on. But, a little like some of his characters, the man seems to possess an almost-pathological singularity of focus and drive. Those traits have brought him — and us, thankfully — a late-career run that includes First Reformed (2017) and now The Card Counter, two of the most assured, calmly devastating meditations on pain and loss I've ever seen.

Stylistically, the two movies could hardly be more different, with the former embracing a stiff austerity (in keeping with its subject) and the latter expanding the frame to take in the glitz and grime of casino life. Narratively, though, Schrader is still exploring the themes that define his work: the nebulous world of psychological trauma and its echoing effects.

Here, Oscar Isaac plays William Tell (perhaps an assumed name), the titular gambler plagued by what he experienced as a military police officer trained in enhanced interrogation techniques and then imprisoned for most of a decade for their use. Despite living an almost entirely solitary life, he falls in with Cirk (Kirk with a C, played by Tye Sheridan), whose father, unable to cope with his own legacy as a torturer, eventually took his own life. Cirk has an ill-conceived plan to capture and exact revenge on retired Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the man responsible, as he sees it, for his father's fate and perhaps, William's as well.

Tiffany Haddish gives a remarkably reserved, almost regal performance as William's benefactor LaLinda. The Card Counter builds with an unrivalled stillness underpinned by a dread to a quietly traumatic climax and cathartic denouement. It is unlike anything else and may not become as celebrated as I think it deserves. R. 112M. STREAMING.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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