A film review by Craig J. Koban October 13, 2021

Rank: #4


2021, R, 112 mins.

Oscar Isaac as William Tell  /  Tye Sheridan as Cirk  /  Willem Dafoe as Col. John Gordo  /  Tiffany Haddish as La Linda  /  Billy Slaughter as Fiddle  /  Amye Gousset as Judy Baufort  /  Joel Michaely as Ronnie  /  Ekaterina Baker as Sara

Written and directed by Paul Schrader

Writer/director Paul Schrader has spent a majority of his career focusing on the darker underbelly of his characters that  - in some form or another - try to find personal salvation that seems hopelessly out of reach for them.   He seems attracted to these doomed people, and all you have to do is look at his earlier career penning some of Martin Scorsese's greatest films like TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL to see proof positive of that.  Even his most recent - and one of this most criminally overlooked - dramas in 2017's FIRST REFORMED dealt with a man of the cloth facing an intense spiritual crisis of conscience; Schrader just seems to be confidently within his wheelhouse when thrusting viewers into the headspaces of his deeply damaged personas. 

His latest in THE CARD COUNTER - one of the best films of 2021 - is a further amplification of Schrader's creative drives, and much like TAXI DRIVER (which it's most obviously similar to, more on that in a bit) and FIRST REFORMED this is a drama that initially tips itself off as one kind of film about a specific subject matter and then radically shifts gears and becomes about something else altogether.  THE CARD COUNTER is about, yes, a card counting gambler, but it's really the furthest thing from being exclusively about casino life, the art of poker, and the gambler's psyche in the manner that it ends up being a commentary of America's post-9/11 political indiscretions and how the gambler in question was deeply scarred because of it.  It's akin to how TAXI DRIVER isn't wholly about angst ridden New York cabbies or how FIRST REFORMED isn't just focused on priests and organized religion.  None of Schrader's fit neatly into easily defined descriptions, with THE CARD COUNTER being no different.  It's really about one man's journey towards some kind of personal redemption, with the journey in question being quite treacherous. 

That, and THE CARD COUNTER is a re-affirmation of how incredible star Oscar Isaac can be in just the right film with just the right material (his latest appearance in the STAR WARS sequel trilogy has unfortunately clouded over his sensational and undervalued work in films like A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, EX MACHINA and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.  In easily one of his best roles of his career, Isaac plays William Tell here, a remarkably adept gambler that self-taught himself to count cards and every other trick in the gambler playbook while doing an eight year stint in military prison (for reasons not fully explained until later in the story).  On the outside, William drifts around from one low key and small scale casino after another looking to score modest victories.  It's not because he lacks talent or is incapable of taking down big game in other large markets.  He just wants to keep a low profile and win small as to not attract too much unwanted attention to himself.  He lives out of his suitcase and wears roughly the same unassuming, but clean cut outfit daily and stays in the cheapest of the cheap motels that he comes across.  When he frequents a town's poker and blackjack casinos they are anything but glamorous.  To take a page out of the poker vernacular, he's basically slow playing the meager competition...and then goes on to the next venue. 



But, just like in true Schrader-ian fashion, not all seems right with William.  Some details are introduced and compellingly without any initial explanation, like his obsessive penchant for covering literally every piece of furniture in every motel he stays in with his packed linens that are all meticulously held together by twine.  As the story progresses we are dropped pieces of his backstory puzzle to put together that speaks largely towards his bet small, win small philosophy of not sticking out too prominently to strangers.  Much of this is brought to light when he meets up with and becomes partners with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) and Cirk (Tye Sheridan), with the former being a financial backer of gamblers that wants to help William win bigger. And as for Cirk (Kirk, but with a C), he has a military background much like William, with both of them serving under Maj. John Gordo (a sneering Willem Dafoe), who spent his career training men like Cirk and William in the art of illegal war prisoner torture.  Gordo never got into any legal trouble over his past sins, whereas William did, and now that he's with Cirk all his younger protégée wants to do is kidnap their former boss and enact some vengeance on him.  Predictably, this isn't easy and is beset by multiple roadblocks. 

It's here when THE CARD COUNTER's commonalities with Schrader's own TAXI DRIVER become that much more apparent.  Both William Tell and Travis Bickle are former military veterans that have been left psychologically charred by their war time.  Both William and Travis are seeking for some sort of cathartic spiritual redemption by befriending younger people in hopes of "saving them" (with Travis wanting to save a teen prostitute and William focusing on his younger fellow war vet).  And more obviously, both William and Travis put down their daily thoughts on paper, and their respective dairy ruminations become a voiceover narration track for their stories.  I don't think that Schrader is lazily pilfering from his own playbook here, but rather allowing William's tale of isolation and hellish memories of a dreaded past to mirror that of Travis, which leads to both films complimenting and book ending one another.  If there's one concrete difference between these characters and their arcs then it would be that with THE CARD COUNTER we get nightmarishly trippy flashbacks to William's stint as a prisoner torturer in Abu Ghraib, which informs quite a bit of his tale.  Schrader also does some truly mesmerizing and technically audacious things with these flashbacks, utilizing multiple fish eye lenses, hallucinogenic camera panning and editing, and an overall visual motif of chilling chaos that makes these military torture scenes feel like bad dreams come to life. 

Equally brilliant is how Schrader completely absconds away from our preconceived notions of what to expect from this material.  Indeed, we do get many scenes of poker and blackjack that showcases William's unparalleled skills at reading the table making mince meat of his opponents.  We get obligatory scenes of William dispensing gambling wisdom to the greenhorn Cirk.  We also get a build up to the "big final match" that has William participating in a winner take all tournament.  But THE CARD COUNTER couldn't be any less interested in the standard accoutrements of these type of genre pictures.  As the film unfolds it becomes clear that Schrader is more invested in the intimate mysteries that typify his characters and what truly makes them unhealthily tick.  Whether or not William "wins" in the end is redundant.  If anything, gambling is something that William is a part of, but it's not what totally defines him.  It's simply a conduit towards what he considers an end game of redemption.  And, as mentioned, like all great Schrader characters, William wages a war within himself over his past and present, and it all comes to a head in thoroughly ugly ways, especially in the manner it exposes a nasty side of American foreign policy and how the country went unchecked and too far during their war on terror, with lingering traumatizing side effects. 

Oscar Isaac is so pitch perfectly modulated and dialed in here as William, and his performance is its own kind of gambling act in terms of never telegraphing nor showing the lurid depths of this man's past horrors and keeping that all bottled up inside.  There's an unnerving calmness to William throughout, and part of the suspense of the picture is in waiting for all of his internalized rage to come out for all to see.  I also greatly admired the against type and unconventional casting of Tiffany Haddish, who is much more well know for ultra broad comedic roles, but here she acclimates herself remarkably well playing opposite of Isaac, and they pair develop some authentic, slow simmering chemistry that pays off well in the latter sections.  If there was a weak point in THE CARD COUNTER then it would be with Sheridan, a solid actor in his own right that's a bit stiff and wooden in his scenes with Isaac early on, but as his character's journey intensifies you can see Sheridan maturing into the role. 

Once THE CARD COUNTER ensnared me within its unorthodox and unpredictable handling of the material and all of the possibilities contained within I was (no pun intended) all in.  If you're expecting a casino drama that sticks to preordained narrative arcs and genre troupes then you'll surely be disappointed with the end result here.  THE CARD COUNTER isn't compelled by the thrills of poker conquest and achieving gambling supremacy.  It's a film about cementing us within the torment of its main lost soul who may never be capable of salvation.  That's the quintessential Schrader archetype.  And even at 75 years old, the filmmaker doesn't show any signs of running out of gas at all.  With masterful turns as of late like FIRST REFORMED and now this it's apparent that maybe he's just getting warmed up at the table.

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