Following in the footsteps of the stellar “First Reformed” was never going to be easy. But filmmaker Paul Schrader’s latest “The Card Counter” is a noble effort. In fact in some ways Schrader’s new film makes for a compelling companion piece to that highly acclaimed 2018 character study.
In “First Reformed” Ethan Hawke played a tortured pastor of a small upstate New York church suffering a crisis of faith. In “The Card Counter” it’s Oscar Isaac playing a gambler haunted by his past time as an ex-military interrogator. Both characters struggle with a similar inner tension just in a different setting and with different details.
The 75-year-old Schrader writes and directs the straightforward titled “The Card Counter” which centers on a poker-faced card-sharp who goes by William Tell (Isaac). We first meet him as he’s finishing up an eight-and-a-half year prison sentence at Fort Leavenworth. He liked prison. He liked the order, the routine. It’s where he honed his skills at blackjack and card counting. In some tantalizing early narration William explains how the technique works and how a good card counter can take away the house’s advantage and use it against them.
William has carved out a life for himself, making a good living by traveling to small casinos across the Midwest using his skills to make a modest profit at each stop. He hasn’t just figured out the trick to winning at blackjack, he’s also figured out how to stay under the radar. He’s learned that casinos don’t pay attention if you win by counting cards. They take notice if you win too much by counting cards. So William bounces from one gaming house to another, always quitting while he’s ahead, and then moving to the next town.
Not only does William enjoy this life, but it helps him suppress and conceal the emotional turmoil inside of him. It’s what holds him together. Isaac’s performance is top-notch and it’s hard to see through his steely solemnity. But it’s obvious there so much behind William’s eyes, namely deep-rooted PTSD from his time at Abu Ghraib and his participation in the state-sanctioned ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ under the command of the callous military contractor Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). A series of potent flashbacks put us into William’s head and they’re shot with an unsettling visceral style.
Things take a turn when William meets Cirk (that’s “Kirk with a C” he constantly reminds everyone), a wayward young man played by Tye Sheridan with a troubling connection to a figure from William’s military past. Sympathetic and concerned, William takes Cirk under his wing. In one sense he hopes to help the boy and steer him in a better direction. But William also discovers a new sense of purpose – something other than the blackjack table that drives him. There’s also this idea of guilt and expiation, both individually and symbolically. It’s a crucial piece to William and Cirk’s odd relationship, and it’s a theme woven throughout Schrader’s picture.
Then you have Tiffany Haddish’s La Linda, the third member of this ungainly traveling trio. She’s a go-between who connects gamblers with wealthy backers who then bankroll the players. Normally William wouldn’t be interested. But with Cirk in debt and needing a new start, maybe a few tournaments backed by some big investors could bring in the money the kid needs.
While Haddish doesn’t always seem in-tune with Schrader’s tone, this is one of her better performances. More subdued and bringing a welcomed warmth, this is nice reprieve from the louder and more in-your-face Haddish. It’s the same with Sheridan who sometimes feels a bit out of place. Still, his low-key character is a central piece of the story and it’s easy to overlook a few sluggish points especially considering how everything plays out.
In the end it’s Oscar Isaac who drives the movie and he’s just the right fit for Schrader’s stern Bresson-like minimalism (just like Hawke in “First Reformed”). As his character is slowly unpacked, Isaac maintains an icy and cryptic stoicism. But we do see cracks in his exterior which ends up taking the movie in an unexpected direction. At the same time, it plays out in the only way that seems fitting for a story that has a lot more on its mind than blackjack and poker tournaments. “The Card Counter” is now showing in select theaters.