Redemption is the long game in Paul Schrader’s THE CARD COUNTER. Told with Schrader’s trademark cinematic intensity, the revenge thriller tells the story of an ex-military interrogator turned gambler haunted by the ghosts of his past.
Guilt, self-destruction and redemption have been the driving themes in the films of Paul Schrader. His continued exploration of these subjects is a breath of fresh air in this era of overblown cookie cutter entertainment. Uncompromising in his approach, when he’s firing on all pistons, thought-provoking movies that resonate due to the intimacy evident in their execution are the result (“First Reformed,” “Affliction”); and even when he may miss the mark (“Dog Eat Dog,” “The Walker”) his work is no less intriguing thanks to his sense of narrative daring and integrity.
His latest, “The Card Counter” is one of his better efforts though it’s hampered by a lack of focus during its third act and a weak performance from one of its principals. Oscar Isaac is William Tell, a troubled vet who’s become a professional gambler after having served a 10-year stint in prison. Over the course of that time, he learned the ins-and-outs of poker and blackjack, mastering the ability to count cards in the process. It’s a solitary pursuit that allows him to make a living by traveling from one casino after the next, winning just enough to live a comfortable life, but never so much to call attention to himself.
His solitary and somewhat meaningless existence is upset when he unexpectedly crosses paths with John Gordo (Willem DaFoe), a contractor he encountered during his time in the service. Specializing in enhanced interrogation techniques i.e., sanctioned torture, we find that Tell fell under his sway while stationed in Abu Ghraib during the war in Iraq, proving quite adept in implementing these techniques. And while Tell was incarcerated because of his actions, Gordo went free, an injustice Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man whose father suffered a similar fate, wants to rectify by torturing and killing him.
Far more than a simple revenge story, the film is focused on how we torture ourselves over past deeds, guilt at times becoming an agent of paralysis. Tell is unable to forgive himself for what he’d done and has numbed his pain by constructing a world of repetition and routine. The bubble he’s created for himself allows him to function without ever engaging with anyone. That he would allow this to be disrupted so suddenly by Cirk, as well as take him under his wing as quickly as he does, is one of the movie’s nagging questions. It all happens much too fast, an expedient action that doesn’t ring quite true for such a deliberate man.
That he would allow La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) in is another matter. Charming and refreshingly straight-forward, she works for a syndicate that bankrolls poker players in high-stakes tournaments. She’s initially rebuffed when she approaches Tell to be part of her stable of players. That he reconsiders makes far more sense, once we come to realize what his end game is.
Sheridan’s awkward performance stands out horribly. Flat line-readings and obvious dramatic choices make for a less than compelling characterization. As a result, we’re left wondering just why Tell ultimately sticks his neck out for him. As for Haddish, her obvious ticks remain but with the director using her sparingly, she’s not the distraction she often is.
Isaac is quite good, fleshing out the nuances of the Schrader protagonist with a coiled intensity that ultimately pays off handsomely. While the film itself meanders and it’s ending seems a bit too abrupt, the actor stays committed, making “The Card Counter” an intriguing and haunting character study, a bracing reminder of the cost a person pays when their worst tendencies are given free reign.
An excerpt from her review:
Starring Oscar Isaac as a troubled military ex-con, Schrader delves deeply into guilt and forgiveness in this troubling and flawed film which loses direction and pace only to wrap up its loose ends neatly with a bow.
Read the review in its entirety here: