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The Card Counter

Oscar Isaac is exceptional in this weighty and compelling gambling drama from 'Taxi Driver' screenwriter and 'First Reformed' director Paul Schrader.
By Sarah Ward
December 02, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
December 02, 2021
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Another Paul Schrader film, another lonely man thrust under a magnifying glass as he wrestles with the world, his place in it and his sense of morality. The acclaimed filmmaker has filled the screen with such characters and stories for more than half a century — intense tales of men who would not take it anymore — as evidenced in his screenplays for Martin Scorsese's brilliant Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead, and also in his own directorial efforts such as Light Sleeper and First Reformed. You can't accuse Schrader of always making the same movie, however, as much as his work repeatedly bets on the same ideas. Instead, his films feel like cards from the same deck. Each time he deals one out, it becomes part of its own hand, as gambling drama The Card Counter demonstrates with potency, smarts and a gripping search for salvation.

The film's title refers to William 'Tell' Tillich (Oscar Isaac, Dune), who didn't ever plan to spend his days in casinos and his nights in motels. But during an eight-year stint in military prison, he taught himself a new skill that he's been capitalising upon after his release. His gambit: winning modest scores from small-scale casinos. If he doesn't take the house, the house won't discipline his card-counting prowess. The money keeps him moving, but each gambling den could be the same for all that Tell cares. His motel-room routine, which involves removing all artwork from the walls, making the bed with his own linen, and covering every other surface and item with carefully tied cloth — making each space as identical as it can be, and resemble incarceration — lingers between fierce self-discipline and a stifled cry for help.

Assistance arrives in two forms, not that Tell is looking or particularly receptive to having other people in his life. The regimented status quo he's carved out so meticulously is first punctured by fellow gambler-turned-agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, Like a Boss), who backs other punters and believes they should team up to profit big on the poker circuit. That'd bring Tell more visibility than he'd like, but it'd also increase his pay days, which would come in handy for his second new acquaintance. In Atlantic City, he meets the college-aged Cirk (Tye Sheridan, Voyagers), who has proposes a quest for revenge. Tell shares a grim past with Cirk's dad, and the twentysomething wants to punish the retired major-turned-security expert (William Dafoe, The Lighthouse) that he holds responsible — which Tell is eager to discourage.

Isaac doesn't ask his reflection if it's looking in his direction. And, given that The Card Counter joins a filmography overflowing with exceptional performances — including Scenes From a Marriage already this year — it won't define his career as Taxi Driver did for a young Robert De Niro. Still, it's the highest compliment to mention the two in the same breath. At every moment, this blistering film is anchored by Isaac's phenomenal portrayal, which is quiet, slippery and weighty all at once. As conveyed with a calculating glare that's as slick as his brushed-back hair, here is a man who dons a calm facade to mask the storm brewing inside, revels in routine to avoid facing change, and anaesthetises his pain and past deeds with the repetition he's made his daily existence. Here is a man desperate to paper over his inner rot with time spent amid meaningless gloss, preferring to feel empty than to feel anything else, until he has an innocent to try to save and a clear-cut way to rally against the soulless world.

In Isaac's case, here is a man surrounded by other impressive actors, too. Haddish is in career-best form, regardless of her comedy successes, and cleverly builds that confident, sharp-talking experience into La Linda's persuasive attitude. Sheridan is tasked with the most blatantly written character of the film's core trio, although that doesn't make Cirk any less riveting or pivotal. Across six decades now, Schrader has probed how America holds up, or doesn't, by using his protagonists as one-man case studies; however, due to Sheridan's single-minded, gun-ho and determined part, The Card Counter sports two examples of how the nation's decay is currently manifesting and spreading — and across two generations as well.

Perhaps its plainest to see Schrader's commitment to the same themes — masculinity that's expected to brood stoically, a society that values ease over substance, a world with an ends-justify-the-means mentality, and the trauma, guilt and pursuit of redemption that all three inspire — as a filmmaker taking snapshots of the passing years. The notions he's so profoundly fascinated with are timeless, sadly, so each of his features steeps them within the US as it then exists. In The Card Counter, that also involves scrutinising American military might, the country's self-proclaimed status as the globe's leader and the horrific atrocities undertaken in its name. Indeed, the movie's most potent sequences take Tell back to his time as a guard in the Abu Ghraib prison complex following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. History has established why that's such a haunting choice, and why so much torment lingers deep in Isaac's eyes. 

When Schrader's now three-time cinematographer Alexander Dynan (Dog Eat Dog, First Reformed) isn't shooting those flashbacks like several layers of feverish nightmares — captured with an ultra-wide lens, warped like a carnival mirror and staged like a relentless onslaught, they're a masterclass in hellishness — The Card Counter takes ample time to peer patiently and intently. It surveys its leading man, eating up his hypnotic fastidiousness. It stalks through the faux casino glitz and lets it tarnish its own veneer, as one of the best gambling films ever made, 1974's California Split, also did. It sees not just lonely men, but sparse spaces, hollow dreams and vacuous ideals. In one short slip into a softer mode, it lets Isaac and Haddish's chemistry — and the sensuous joy of vibrant colours and lights — pose an alternative, too. Going all in on the power and passion of Schrader's lifelong cinematic obsessions and convictions, The Card Counter is another of the writer/director's aces — hands down.

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