The Card Counter Synopsis: William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a gambler and former serviceman fresh out of jail for crimes he committed. Tell just wants to play cards. His spartan existence on the casino trail is shattered when he is approached by Cirk (Ty Sheridan), a vulnerable and angry young man seeking help to execute his plan for revenge on a military colonel.
From precisely cold features to his questionable comments in the press, Paul Schrader stands as a singular presence in Hollywood’s conformed system. His somewhat dormant career received a breath of fresh air with 2018’s First Reformed – an effectively chilling look at a priest disillusioned by the toxic world around him.
Schrader’s long-awaited follow-up, The Card Counter, feels like a spiritual sequel of sorts. Instead of the vacant halls of an antiquated church, Schrader engulfs audiences in protagonist William Teller’s existential dread amidst the vapid poker scene. Schrader’s sensibilities suffer from inconsistencies, but the writer/director’s searing personal and thematic ambitions render an impactful portrait of inescapable pains.
Casino films are typically lit and framed with glossy vibrancy, utilizing bold techniques to place audiences in the thrilling rush of high-steak gambling. In The Card Counter, Schrader wisely turns against the subgenre’s usual panache. His muted color tones and steady framing zap the sleazy appeals right out of the setting, with Schrader keenly observing the farce existing in this overly-produced environment. The inclusion of Robert Levon Been’s sparse yet haunting score adds to the ominous tonality while consistently keeping audiences on their toes.
The mannered aesthetics suddenly morph into a haunting nightmare when introducing William’s painful memories from the military. Schrader’s fish-eye, VR-esque framing creates a viscerally distorted image of the character’s oppressive torment. Through his thoughtful filmmaking choices and pointed script, Schrader keenly observes William’s battle for redemption against his pre-destined descent into foreboding darkness. The addition of timely social ruminations – including the harsh juxtaposition between the US’s manufactured casinos and the inhumane cruelty under the country’s surface – further cement William’s existence as a damaged byproduct of broken systems.
William’s insular torments come to life under Oscar Isaac’s skilled tutelage. The actor showcases a deft balance between William’s buttoned-up facade and the untamed emotions lying just under the surface, manifesting powerful sentiments through effectively subtle techniques (his empty gaze speaks volumes). Ty Sheridan and Willem Dafoe also offered assured performances, with Sheridan and Isaac building a steady rapport between William and Sheridan’s disenfranchised young adult. The two share a bond forged by shared trauma, with both trying to stay ahead of the lingering demons through their unlikely camaraderie.
The Card Counter is consistently compelling – even as sections of the film don’t quite connect. I was excited to see Tiffany Haddish step into new territory as William’s aloof gambling financier La Linda, but the character’s stiff delivery does not utilize her skillset well. Haddish and Isaac lack the chemistry to sell their budding romance, ultimately detracting from the third act’s balance between hope and despair. I also can’t die that Schrader explores familiar terrain with his latest project, which detracts from some of the theme’s raw impact.
I don’t think The Card Counter will be for everyone, but those who can tune into Schrader’s distinct frequency will find an unshakeable cinematic experience. Even with its issues, Schrader’s latest is one of the strongest big-screen offerings to date this year.