The Card Counter
2021, R, 109 min. Directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe, Joel Michaely.
REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., Sept. 10, 2021
The log line for The Card Counter should sound familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Paul Schrader film before: A professional card player who (you guessed it) wins games by counting cards cannot escape his internal demons and is set on a path of potential violence and personal destruction. This time the man in question is named William Tell (Isaac), who, just like Schrader creations Travis Bickle or Reverend Toller before him, has trouble coming to grips with the horrors of the world he inhabits and may nearly be pushed to the edge to do something about it.
Those coming to the film looking for a faithful dramatization about cards will only be partially satisfied; Tell’s career at casinos is more of a tangential backdrop to the more thorny and blunt political interests that guide his journey. We quickly understand why Tell’s ghosts are so everlasting within him, as he’s revealed to have taken part in the inhumane torture practices at Abu Ghraib at the start of the Iraq War. When he meets a young man named Cirk (Sheridan) who knows Tell’s former commanding officer Gordo (Dafoe) and is out on a retribution path, Tell becomes entwined in a microcosm of the anger and struggle regarding 2001 that America has yet to reconcile (it seems no accident that the film is releasing the week of the 20th anniversary of 9/11).
This struggle plays out through an icy and somewhat detached neo-noir, as Tell’s relationship with Cirk and his financier La Linda (Haddish, in a wonderful, subdued turn here) finds him trying to foster genuine connections so that he may be able to heal. Schrader remains committed to his late-style cold moodiness, with scenes shot in a sterile plainness and lines delivered in a frank matter-of-fact tone that to some may appear stilted but effectively accompanies his main character’s harsh view of his surroundings. This gives way to certain cinematic bursts of life, such as a disorienting ultra wide-angle that accompanies horrifying flashbacks to Abu Ghraib, or a scene at an outdoor light display that turns into a dizzyingly beautiful whirlwind. Through it all, Isaac grounds the movie in his stirring, tuned-in performance of Tell, who sees himself in Cirk and wants to save him, as if by making things right for this one troubled soul he might himself find salvation and forgiveness.
Whether that’s actually true is up to viewer discretion, and the very idea of forgiveness is a tricky subject when considering Tell’s troubling past. It shouldn’t go unsaid, however, that Schrader, much like in those transcendental final moments of First Reformed, reveals himself as a bit of a softie somewhere deep beneath all the brooding. Whether Tell’s prospects of personal deliverance are attainable or not, Schrader homes in on the hope and beauty in the relationships he learns to nurture through his attempts. But he’s also smart enough to know that it isn’t that easy. That piece inside you that’s broken beyond repair might never totally be salvaged, and sometimes playing your cards right isn’t enough.