The worlds of gambling and torture collide in Paul Schrader’s entrancing Card Counter

B: Steve Pulaski

Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter intensely revolves around Oscar Isaac’s “William Tell,” a touring poker player. I place the name in quotations because it’s a name he’s given himself. There’s a lot you can read into it, most notably his surname being every poker player’s downfall. Then there’s “Will Tell,” the name which he’s most often referred. Will travels to various casinos, neglecting to stay in their accompanying resorts in favor of seedy motel-rooms. He packs several white sheets and twine, which he meticulously uses to cover every single surface in his rooms.

A man of uncommon discipline, Will shuns the celebrity lifestyle often associated by gambling in favor of anonymity. He merely has one neat drink at a bar when the dealing is done, and is turned off by meeting new faces. So, why does he play? To keep himself composed. Will is haunted by his time spent as a U.S. Army torturer in Abu Ghraib. Flashbacks to his time to those inhumane conditions are captured through a distorted fish-eye lens that present a surreal, wobbly amalgam of a fever-dream and a nightmare.

His otherwise neatly manicured existence happens to introduce him to two new faces: La Linda (a measured Tiffany Haddish), a friendly poker bankroller who runs a stable (a group of investors who help bankroll players in exchange for compensation) and Tye Sheridan’s Cirk (pronounced “Kirk”). Cirk is the son of a military vet who served alongside Will, whose own guilt compelled him to commit suicide. Cirk slips Will his number at a securities expo, and over a drink at the casino bar, tells him his plan: he wants to abduct the contractor (Willem Dafoe) who trained the torturers and got off scot-free. Will’s subsequent prison stint gave him ample time to learn the practice of counting and playing cards.

Will suddenly has a motive, albeit not the same as Cirk’s. He takes Cirk on the road with him, hoping to raise enough poker winnings to rid him of his debt and expedite a reunion between the troubled twentysomething and his mother. All the while, Will wants to redeem himself. You get the feeling when he’s sitting at any given table, observing the actions of other players and staring into their souls, he’s trying to find access to his own. With Cirk, he’s ostensibly found it.

Heavily influenced by French filmmaker Robert Bresson, Schrader has made an enviable career out of making movies about isolated individuals with self-destructive tendencies. He’s referred to many of his films as stories about “a man in a room,” consumed either by anger, grief, or narcissism to the point where we, the audience, must watch our lead spiral in slow-motion. Schrader’s previously feature, First Reformed, centered around a priest at a dwindling New York church, with the adverse effects of climate change giving the film an apocalyptic edge.

The Card Counter, by comparison, feels decisively smaller-scale. Like all great poker movies, poker is the backdrop rather than the central focus. It gives Will something of a purpose, and as such, it plays a significant role. Schrader lets this story unfold with a glacial pace, where context is conservatively revealed and the patient moviegoer is rewarded with a litany of memorable scenes. Few are as distinct as the moment Will ominously sits Cirk down and gives him an ultimatum. Isaac channels the talent that makes him one of the best actors today with a mix of directness and instability that, humorously enough, has him committing one of the most selfless acts he’s ever done in his life.

All of this might fall flat if Schrader wasn’t such a tremendous stylist with his pictures. In The Card Counter, he commits to the austere interiors of multimillion-dollar casinos by robbing them of their intoxicating sheen. From the moment Will steps into one of these palaces, he’s undistracted and deliberate with his movements. He’s trained himself to bet small and win small, merely walking away with a couple hundred dollars by virtue of his card-counting prowess. “The casinos don’t care if you count cards,” he tells La Linda early. “They don’t care if you count cards and win small. They care if you count cards and win big.”

Of all the aesthetics, it’s Robert Levon Been’s moody soundtrack that sends The Card Counter over the top. Been’s minimalist production and repetitive lyrics are liable to score any future nightmares you might have, and compliment a picture that reminds us that anyone is capable of going on tilt. Schrader’s infrequent releases compared to his contemporaries leads many (and myself) to forget what a visceral filmmaker he is. The subject matter embedded in First Reformed led many to believe it would be his last. The Card Counter proves the 75-year-old writer/director hasn’t run out of things to say; he just takes his time in presenting a complete package.

NOTE: The Card Counter is now playing exclusively in theaters.

Grade: A-