'The Card Counter' Film Review: Oscar Isaac's Gambler Is Haunted by His Torturous Past

Venice 2021: Paul Schrader once again plumbs the themes that typify his screen output, but he finds new grace notes along the way


Focus Features

Green covers the screen as the opening credits for Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter” surface. The color and texture come from the felt distinctive to casino tables. But this isn’t a study on greed for cash, in spite of what the palaces of gambling where it mostly occurs might suggest. What’s bet on with every played hand is absolution, the potential cleansing of a specter’s soul. 

Men with moral vendettas are the veteran writer-director’s objects of fascination. Saints are too facile to be subjects to inspire his sordid plots, but those with dubious pasts and a righteous, self-imposed mandate for vindication are dramatic aces. His vehicle for this latest oft-gripping but ultimately mild work is William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a former military interrogator jailed for carrying out the dehumanizing torture practices his superiors ordered. Not much else emerges about him as far as the specifics of his personal life.

Isaac has previously embodied men unafraid of exerting violence to get things done, whether as the ruthless mobster in “A Most Violent Year” or the hotheaded father in “Drive.” But while Bill has the capacity for brute force, the performance is about the containment of those impulses. To that end, he has found comforting pragmatism in cards, the numeric logic that rules blackjack and the people-reading skills pertinent to poker. Voice-over narration hints at his calculated expertise and his strategy of winning small to prevent attracting attention.

Schrader suffuses Bill with eccentric behavior to note how his transition from torturer to private citizen hasn’t been without its marked bumps. A marvelously subdued Isaac maintains unnerving stoicism when wrapping every piece of furniture inside his hotel rooms in white sheets or playing at a high-stakes, country-wide tournament that financial backer La Linda (a measured Tiffany Haddish) convinces him to enter.

Although their visual experiments vary in effectiveness, cinematographer Alexander Dynan (a collaborator on the director’s “First Reformed”) and Schrader are not complacent in their approach to form. “The Card Counter” continues Schrader’s intriguing relationship with altered states of consciousness in reaction to trauma via individuals who dissociate from their reality and enter a preternatural state.

Take, for example, the flashbacks to the gates of man-made hell, the U.S. government-sanctioned torture chambers of Abu Ghraib where Bill, under the command of Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), inflicts abhorrent pain on fellow human beings. A fish-eye lens presents these gruesome walkthroughs with fitting distortion, a blurry nightmare that’s sensorily heightened in image and sound. Later, Christmas lights give way to a dazzling interlude of romantic possibility, even if Haddish and Isaac’s involvement feels insipidly unearned.

Like Ethan Hawke’s priest in “First Reformed,” scenes of Bill writing troubling thoughts in a diary point to the filmmaker’s recurrent usage of characters who can articulate hurt in language on the page, thinking men with poisoned minds that can’t forget. Yet “The Card Counter” doesn’t transmit the same fury that his previous feature did, since Bill finds a project to help him walk towards redemption and away from blood-drenched revenge.

When young buck Cirk (Tye Sheridan) appears in his purview confessing his plan to murder Gordo to avenge his father, persuading him otherwise becomes the gambler’s mission. One can’t but be grateful that Schrader looked away from the dead-wife or dead-children tropes as elemental motives for his leading man here. Sheridan, a risk-taking actor afforded less praise than many of his contemporaries, is competent, but mostly as the receptor of Isaac’s most emotionally charged scenes.

Early into their father-and-child–like friendship, after Bill asks him to join him on the road, the soldier shares memories of his degrading acts. His mutedly impassioned delivery sucks the air out of the room. Later, when his efforts to parent don’t get through, Bill raises the severity of the exchanges. In those moments, Isaac looks intently at the boy, as if struggling to keep his festering rage inside. That’s when Schrader’s directing shines in his ability to push for restraint. Bill needs Cirk to relinquish his desire for retribution in order to feel like Bill has earned a modicum of forgiveness. Free money to kickstart his future might do the trick, or so Bill hopes.

Guiding Schrader’s philosophical musings in this sleek road movie, shot in artificially bright interiors and cheap accommodations, is the weight of the debt, be it financial or moral, and how one can lead to the other. Some can’t ever be fully repaid, as in the case of Bill’s monstrous job. That the direct victims of the United States’ disturbing stance on torture appear only in the background of Schrader’s screenplay feels questionable. However, having a guilty character like Bill search for atonement through those he hurt with his own hands would have resonated as tritely exploitative; thus the alternative, Cirk, acts as a complex compromise.

Overt commentary on disturbing patriotism comes in the form of a Ukrainian-born poker player clad in the American flag as he defeats his opponents and cashes in big. This figure and his entourage chase Bill and his team around, almost like a walking metaphor for how Bill feels about what he did under the pretense of love for country. And, as in “First Reformed,” the protagonist perceives that the major issue affecting him, climate change or war crimes, materializes in a single evil entity whose death could bring about change. Not for nothing is Isaac’s part named after a Swiss folk hero who murdered a tyrant.

Even when considering how it’s graced with splashes of stylistic bravado and how vigorously head-on it distills its heady themes (all to an extent rehashed from Schrader’s own body of work) — not to mention the decision to keep part of the gruesomeness off-screen and concluding the piece on a semi-hopeful note — “The Card Counter” still doesn’t come across as urgent or magnetic as other efforts. Perhaps this represents a shift for Schrader into storytelling with a slightly more uplifting energy, or at least one where not every part of his protagonist’s journey burns down to the ground. That’s a happy ending in his terms.

“The Card Counter” opens in U.S. theaters on September 10.

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