When you sit down to a Paul Schrader film, you more or less know what you’re getting yourself into. Schrader doesn’t do light fare. His movies traffic in the darker corners of the soul, requiring you to get on his wavelength. The Card Counter is yet another example of this. However, its utterly distinctive personality hints more at darkness than it actively bathes itself in it. That nominal distinction allows it to be its own thing, somewhat unique from the filmmakers recent output. A far cry from the bleakness of First Reformed, this isn’t a happy flick, but it has moments that are purely enjoyable. Personally? I kind of loved it.
The Card Counter is plenty dark, but there are bits of light that shine through. Hypnotic from start to finish, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, even if you have suspicions. With a terrific lead role and a constant curiosity, Schrader keeps you on the edge of your seat, slowly building tension as he’s so prone to do.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) used to be a specialist in the armed forces, working as a military interrogator. Now, after a prison stint for crimes stemming from interrogations, he’s just a gambler who just wants to play cards. He goes from small spot to small spot, mostly winning, having learned to count cards in jail. At one hotel, he sees a conference featuring a guest speaker in Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), his mentor and former boss. There, he also meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of a former fellow soldier. Cirk’s father took his own life after returning home, and he blames Gordo. He wants to kill him, but furthermore, he hopes that William will help.
Aiming to help Cirk with his life, but not his plot for vengeance, William puts a plan into motion. First, he seeks out gambling financier La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) to stake him in bigger poker games. The goal is to make enough money to get the kid out on his own. Cirk tags along, with the trio sort of forming a rough family. However, the younger man still has designs on revenge, despite William advising against it. As the World Series of Poker looms for him, he also sees a point of no return. So, faced with a choice, William taps into his dark past to try and keep Cirk from a similar fate.
Oscar Isaac delivers a phenomenal performance, one that’s among his best yet. Isaac makes William Tell a complex figure you never quite figure out. Whenever his character takes a turn, it comes as a surprise, though never seemingly like the whims of a screenwriter. He’s just tremendous, essaying a role unlike any he’s played before. You’d watch Isaac in this part for hours. Tiffany Haddish is, unfortunately, miscast here, but she brings a distinctive vibe to an under-written character. She and Isaac do have a low-key chemistry though, and that counts for something. Tye Sheridan is a bit one-note, but the note he’s playing is a good one. Willem Dafoe essentially cameos here, being more of a presence than a character. This is, unquestionably, the Oscar Isaac show, from start to finish.
Paul Schrader writes and directs here with his trademark intensity. At the same time, small moments in The Card Counter even hint at tenderness. There’s a darkness to all of his characters here, though each has some form of redemption being sought. It’s a nice balance that makes the intense moments stand out more. There’s also at least one shot that is downright romantic, something we don’t often see from Schrader. He’s not going to convert any skeptics here, but it’s continued evidence that he’s an interesting cinematic voice.
Awards-wise, The Card Counter is going to be a harder sell than even First Reformed was. Oscar Isaac, like Ethan Hawke, is nomination-worthy, but can Oscar look upon Isaac favorably? That remains to be seen. Schrader is a bit of a troublemaker again, which won’t help things, but a lot will ride on precursor support. Without that, he won’t have a chance, unfortunately.
The Card Counter is a compelling and hypnotic experience, though one that clearly won’t be for everyone. It just follows the beat of its own drummer, largely to excellent effect. Will it be a satisfying film for most? Perhaps not. It’s also not meant to be. Provided you can get on the movie’s wavelengths, its specific rhythms make for something you won’t soon forget.