Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter

The Card Counter keeps audience guessing

The Card Counter

  • Drama, Thriller | R |
  • Exclusively in Theaters

By Reed Riply

Great art often comes from a place of deep turmoil, and film audiences should be glad Paul Schrader channeled his into his latest film, The Card Counter

The story follows William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a former military interrogator and ex-con who plods across the country from casino to casino playing cards as a vehicle to pass through life. Tell’s strict routine is broken when a young, tormented man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) approaches him with a plan to exact revenge on a shared enemy from the past. Instead of helping Cirk give into his desire for retribution, Tell brings him along the casino trail, sacrifices his anonymity and leverages his considerable card skills in an attempt to reform Cirk (and perhaps himself). 

Schrader’s films focus on tortured souls reckoning with life decisions and a chance at redemption, or at least a reckoning with their morality. This film fits directly into that canon. Tell’s torment comes from his past as a black site interrogator, performing heinous acts in the name of extracting information. The things he did certainly haunt him, but the real trauma and anguish come from his capacity to tap into an internal darkness which made him so effective in the job. 

Isaac excels at playing enigmatic characters to which people are innately drawn, and his charisma is expertly deployed, particularly in scenes with Tiffany Haddish’s La Linda, to reflect a man who may have been a charming rogue in the past, but whose moral conflict has hollowed out his soul to the point of near sterility. 

A beautiful thing about Schrader’s work is the restraint and intentionality of everything that makes it to screen. Memory sequences of Tell’s time as an interrogator are shot in a disorienting wide-angle lens that echoes the chaos and harshness of the setting, and much of the film carries a washed-out quality evoking the fluorescent-soaked and wired experience of casinos. 

The film is neither a fun gambling movie nor an action-packed revenge thriller. Instead, the gambling scenes are engaging because of the camera work and Isaac’s performance; the thrills come from never knowing what Tell might do, and never knowing where the film might go. 

With the film’s release so soon after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the 20th anniversary of September 11, it becomes a fitting vehicle to address morality and sacrifices made in pursuit of certain ideals. 

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