Paul Schrader has spent much of his career peering into the dark abyss of troubled men’s souls. He creates another subject eminently worthy of such examination in the title figure of The Card Counter, who goes by the assumed name of William Tell and is played by Oscar Isaac in an intense performance with the dangerous magnetism of Al Pacino in his early Michael Corleone days. A companion piece of sorts to First Reformed, this is another bruising character study of a solitary, burdened man who processes his most intimate thoughts in a journal, living with his guilt until he’s handed an unexpected opportunity for redemption.
From the cool retro font of its opening credits, displayed over the textured weave of baize card-table cloth in extreme close-up, this Focus release has an edgy 1970s throwback feel despite its contemporary setting. It finds writer-director Schrader once again in a reflective frame of mind, pondering the limits of punishment while blurring the line between expiation and self-destruction. That aspect is nicely countered here, however, by the jazzy vitality of the early scenes as Alexander Dynan’s camera slinks around the tables of various casinos and William explains the rules. Blackjack is his game of choice, but he’s no slouch at poker either.
The Card Counter
The Bottom Line
Deal me in.
As in First Reformed, Schrader uses extensive voiceover not as the lazy storytelling fallback it so often becomes, but as a key to provide access to the mind of a protagonist who chooses to reveal little about himself. And to deliver quick primers on the rules of each game and the specific ways a skilled professional gambler can beat the house.
“I never imagined myself as someone suited to incarceration,” says William, explaining how he adapted to a long stint in Leavenworth, enjoying the unvaried routine and the reading time. It was there that he learned how to count cards. He moves from town to town, plays small casinos and keeps his wins modest enough to avoid undue attention. William is not playing to get rich, just to pass the time, even if the shadows dogging him suggest he’s anything but relaxed.
Gambling agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) spots him as a thoroughbred while she’s building a stable of poker tournament players bankrolled by an anonymous backer. William declines her offer to join at first, but changes his mind when he meets someone he can help, a lost young man to serve as his penance.
The visions in William’s sleep of torture and interrogation carried out by a U.S. military special ops unit in an Iraqi prison hint at his past. But it’s not until some way into the film that Schrader reveals William was one of the fall guys court-martialed after the Abu Ghraib scandal, while senior officers who engineered the human rights violations remained free to reinvent themselves in the private sector.
One such shady figure is the man now known as Major John Gordo (frequent Schrader collaborator Willem Dafoe in hard-as-nails form), whom William sees giving a talk at a security conference for correctional officers at a hotel-casino. A young man in the audience, Cirk “with a C” Baufort (Tye Sheridan), recognizes William from photographs as a former soldier from the same unit in which his late father served, both of them trained by the sadistic Gordo.
The disgrace for Cirk’s dad ended in suicide, and after dropping out of school and severing ties with his mother, the son now wants to settle the score. Cirk, who has a half-assed plan to make Gordo pay, tells William that when he saw him he thought, “Here’s a man who might want a piece of what I’m gonna start.”
As much as the moral weight of his actions in Iraq still plagues him, William tells the kid that he refuses to be consumed by thoughts of a past he can’t erase. Instead, he sees in Cirk a chance to do some good, providing mentorship and financial support to get him back on track. But this is a Paul Schrader film, so the path of good intentions inevitably is paved with violence.
The later plotting loses some tension as the focus is split among a gambling tournament, a low-flame romance between William and La Linda, and William’s graphic accounts to Cirk of what it was really like in Iraq. While the kid initially enjoys hanging out in hotels and casinos with play money provided by William, he soon starts to find the life repetitive: “I don’t know if it’s really going anywhere.” The same suspicion briefly creeps into the film. But Schrader regains the momentum as Cirk fails to hold up his end of their bargain, forcing William into a direct reckoning with his past.
Even with that hint of midsection story slackness, this is still a highly controlled piece of filmmaking with an unerring command of tone. In William, Schrader has created another anguished protagonist numbing his pain in an existential void, going from town to town and casino to casino, each one much like the last. There’s a sharp visual contrast between those bland interiors with their tacky carpets and outdated décor and the stark Iraqi prison brought to to nightmarish life in William’s descriptions of “the noise, the smell, the violence.”
Schrader disdains conventional payoffs, so while he sets up one peripheral character for humiliation — an obnoxious showboater who travels the gambling circuit with his own cheer squad — that doesn’t happen; and the promising emotional connection between William and La Linda hits a bump. Even the final tournament is abandoned before the winning hand is played as the movie veers off on a startling new curve. But William’s self-sacrificial road out of purgatory provides a kind of bloody deliverance, one that’s more in keeping with the writer-director’s defining themes while not extinguishing all hope. The specifically Christian notion of forgiveness is intrinsic to Schrader’s work, irrespective of the extreme lengths his lost souls go to in order to earn it.
The haunted quality of the central character, in limbo between sin and salvation, is effectively echoed in the original songs composed for the movie by Robert Levon Been, of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
It’s good to see Haddish expand her range in a dramatic role, playing against type as a driven yet cool customer in a field where reading people is an essential skill. In one scene that’s a visual stunner, La Linda coaxes William outside his ascetic routine of hotels, casinos and generic eateries to take a stroll in the illuminated Missouri Botanical Garden at night. She’s literally inviting him to consider the possibilities of beauty and vitality, and the chemistry between the two actors really clicks during their exchanges in this magical setting, so alien to the world the film otherwise inhabits.
Sheridan’s character is less satisfyingly developed, and while he conveys the simmering volatility of a young man set on revenge but lacking the wiles to orchestrate it, he struggles to assert much of a presence in scenes with William.
That’s also because Isaac is such a remarkably compelling force — even in the many scenes notable for the physical stillness of a man whose eyes clock everything. In one of the film’s strangest elements, its meaning left open to interpretation, William, on arrival at each new hotel, removes white drop cloths and string from his luggage and methodically wraps all the furnishings in his room. Dressed immaculately in what’s almost a uniform of a snug leather jacket over a shirt and tie, his dark hair slicked back and marked by a bolt of gray, this is a man who looks to create the outward impression of order and control. But the torment gnawing away at his insides is never in doubt.