“I like the regime. I like the routine.”
So says William Tell (Oscar Isaac) of his time in prison, seen at the start of writer/director Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter,” a line delivered in the moody noir anti-hero narration that continues throughout the film. The same could also be said of Tell’s time outside of prison. While incarcerated, he learned how to count cards, and after his release, he spends his days traveling from casino to casino, playing the games and winning a lot—but never enough to arouse too much suspicion.
The way Schrader sets up “The Card Counter,” you’d almost believe you’re in for a straight up gambling saga, something in the vein of “California Split” or “The Cincinnati Kid” (the 1965 Norman Jewison movie that pits Steve McQueen in the ultimate poker match against Edward G. Robinson that is referenced within this film). Tell even attempts to explain the rules of blackjack and poker and its various iterations to the audience in his narration, something I, as someone who does not know how to play cards, appreciated, even if I was still confused. In a way, I might have preferred that. But Schrader peels back to layers to the story and to Tell as the film progresses, drawing a correlation between Tell’s gambling and his time serving in the Iraq War that seems unusual on the surface, but makes perfect sense within the context of “The Card Counter.” Mostly.
It turns out that Tell was in prison as the result of being found guilty of human rights violations during his time as a military interrogator at the Iraq prison Abu Ghraib. Before we know the details of this experience, Schrader shows us how Tell’s guilt over his past manifests itself in his present life. When he checks into a hotel room for the night, he methodically puts his bags down, removes all the pictures from the walls, unplugs the phone, and covers every surface of the room—bed, table, lamps—in the white sheets he has packed in his suitcase, carefully tying them down with twine. At night, he dreams of Abu Ghraib and his commanding officer, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Cinematographer Alexander Dynan shot these scenes with a VR lens that lend them a nausea-inducing distorted effect as the camera travels through the space, further enhancing the nightmarish quality of what we’re seeing.
But Tell gets his chance at redemption when he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man whose father served with Tell, at a hotel conference. Cirk blames Gordo for his father’s suicide, and wants to rope Tell into his revenge plot. But Tell sees an opportunity to steer Cirk away from the life of torture and violence that led him to his current, guilt-stricken state of mind. He decides to team up with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a gambling backer who he’s played against in a few different casinos, to raise a nest egg for Cirk that will allow him to erase his debts and go back to college. Naturally, none of this is going to go as Tell envisions.
The nomadic lifestyle Tell leads sounds like it might be exciting, but Schrader and Dynan emphasize the monotony and dreariness of it all instead. The neon lights and loud carpets of the casinos are all the same, as are the dimly lit, dumpy motels Tell insists on staying in. At times, the look of the film feels more unstylized than minimalistic, but then Schrader will insert a scene that’s uniqueness and beauty against the backdrop of everything else going on is captivating, like when La Linda and Tell go for a nighttime stroll through a park brilliant lit up in a variety of colored lights; the camera follows them, establishing the closer bond that is forming between the two, before zooming all the way out and viewing the entirety of the scene from above. Schrader is also at times a little heavy on the symbolism. As Tell travels from casino to casino competing in the poker tournaments La Linda enters him in, he is followed by another competitor clad in a tank top depicting the United States flag, he and his buddies holding up signs and loudly chanting “U.S.A.” at every opportunity. Their blind patriotism stands in contrast to Tell, who has both witnessed and participated in horrors on behalf of this country (an element to the film that feels especially timely).
Isaac is maybe not at the top of his game here—his character is a little too restrained to allow for much showiness in his performance—but he does a great job portraying both the introspective, lonely nature of Tell, and the cracks that begin to appear in his armor through his interactions with Cirk and La Linda. One of the biggest flaws of “The Card Counter,” however, is the casting of actors opposite Isaac who can’t quite match his talent. I’ll admit, I’m kind of in to Haddish here though. Her character—forward, seductive, a flashy dresser, perhaps less interested in routine like Tell if the fact that she orders a completely different cocktail every time she sits down at a bar is any indication—is so different from Isaac’s that her presence is a little jarring, but I ultimately liked the relationship that formed between the two (it helps that Isaac seems to have chemistry with every living being he comes into contact with). Sheridan’s Cirk, who so much of the plot hinges on, however, is another story. Maybe his aloofness is benefiting an aimless and disturbed young man, but whether he was trying to be amusing or serious, Sheridan’s performance felt too one-note. Throughout the movie, Tell is so devoted to helping Cirk, inviting him to travel with him, repeatedly telling La Linda that “he’s a good kid,” but I never bought any sort of relationship between the two.
It’s likely less about Cirk himself, however, and more about what Tell sees him as representing: an opportunity for redemption. If he can save Cirk from traveling down a darker path, perhaps there is hope for Tell as well. The finale to these stories didn’t hit as hard as they should have in the final act; again, Tell’s lack of outward emotion is a detriment, although I did enjoy Schrader’s choice to keep the violence off-screen. Despite the elements that don’t exactly work, the morality play at the heart of “The Card Counter” is clear, making Schrader’s newest variation on his tortured, solitary protagonist a movie worth betting on.
“The Card Counter” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 111 minutes. Rated R.