Logline: A maniac is on the loose in Rome, kidnapping women and forcing the local police to gamble for the victims' lives through high stakes games of online poker. Detective Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) must team up with a troubled English Interpol agent (Liam Cunningham) to suss out the killer's location and put an end to his deadly gambling.
For all the predictability of his stories and plots in these later decades, Argento still possesses the ability to surprise his most observant and critical fans. For me, this surprise rarely registers as unabashed enjoyment of the films, but rather as a morbid appreciation for the wild and often wrongheaded filmmaking choices that Argento makes when constructing his numerous variations on a standard issue thrilling theme. It's fascinating that a single director making the same sort of film again and again over a couple of decades could make each feel so different. Tonally and aesthetically, Trauma (1994), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), Sleepless (2001), The Card Player, and Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005) bear no resemblance to one another, despite the fact that they all share the same well-worn giallo template. Argento's late career is a case that complicates any desire that a critic might have to look at his work through the lens of auteur theory: what was once horror's most distinctive stylistic nightmare vision has fractured like the glass of a broken mirror, producing a run of films that clash with and contradict one another on all possible levels. The influence of producers, distributors, audience expectations, and shrinking budgets have clearly had an effect on shaping Argento's later works, but that doesn't begin to explain the lack of reasonable stylistic and thematic continuity among them.
While a classically defined "auteur" will certainly develop her style and thematic concerns over her career as a director, a viewer should be able (as per the theory) to always recognize the director in her work, particularly if one were to view the director's films chronologically and witness her evolution as it happened. But at a certain point in Argento's career, his evolution as an "auteur" quits being linear: he devolves, rushes forward, backtracks, or floats off into atmosphere. You could pick any film from his later filmography, compare it to either the film preceding or succeeding it, and find each to resemble the work of no one in particular. More often than not, you'll find two films that appear so opposed to the elements and ideas of the other that they couldn't possibly be the work of the same filmmaker. For example, Sleepless, the film Argento made immediately before The Card Player, is the cinematic equivalent of a Luddite, with its stripped-down, old-fashioned procedural approach to the horror-thriller subgenre being placed at the forefront of its concerns. Let's not forget that one of the protagonists of that film, Max von Sydow's Inspector Moretti, actually laments the police's growing reliance on technology, and we see Moretti's distaste for technological advancement mirrored in the film itself both through its narrative (in which the modern cops' tech fails to produce results) and its approach to filmmaking (in which Argento mostly eschews the modern visual effects and cinematography that he had been trying out in previous films with sketchy results).
In my essay on Sleepless here at the blog, I attempted to argue that the film was, in some ways, a conflicted reflection of Argento's own relationship-- and resistance-- to modern horror filmmaking in the early noughties, which had begun to heavily embrace computer technology in place of practical composition. And yet his follow-up film, The Card Player, throws that reading into disarray by incorporating technology (specifically online video poker games) into the plot as a fundamental feature. Whereas Sleepless eschewed technology when crafting its scenes of suspense, The Card Player relies exclusively upon it, often to its own detriment. (These high stakes online poker games, rendered in circa mid-'90s computer graphics and augmented by shoddy webcam A/V, are about as far from visual suspense as can be.) Consequent of this alteration of technology's importance to the narrative, the visual architecture of the screen adjusts to fit it: Sleepless's gorgeous Italian buildings, which gave the film a classically cinematic air, are replaced in The Card Player with cold office cubicles and computer terminals, more befitting a TV cop drama. Any of Sleepless's perceived sentiments concerning the preservation of the traditions and aesthetics of past horror cinema are obliterated by The Card Player's desperate, flailing attempts to be relevant and timely, as if Sleepless itself was a failed nostalgia experiment and The Card Player is Argento's resignation to the changes of the modern era.
So is an auteur still an auteur if he gives up, or stops trying? Were those early films the product of the auteur or those who surrounded him? Those are questions for investigation, surely, but the answers aren't hidden in the films themselves. And, unfortunately, divorcing The Card Player from all of these bothersome queries doesn't reveal it to be a good film of its own unique merit. In fact, it's the worst I've seen thus far, the product of some bizarro world wherein FeardotCom (2002) was a creative and financial success worthy of imitation. What's here is all plot, and that plot hinges (feebly) on the viewer buying into silly things like the police's flagrant irresponsibility (for which they are not held accountable) and the ability of a master hacker/poker player to both remain untraceable and remotely control the police's computer network with a "mega virus." The Card Player feels as if it were made with a TV-watching audience in mind, and thus delivers performances and exposition that are easy enough to digest and recall between commerical breaks. And though it's about as melodramatic and preposterous as any episode of any Law & Order spinoff, its broad storytelling feels more egregious at feature length. It becomes a laughable cartoon, in which the climax literally involves the heroine being tied down to train tracks by the villain as a train barrels towards her. A month into my sojourn into Argento's darker days, I'm beginning to wish that train would barrel towards my station next.