The Card Counter

September 10th, 2021




The films of Paul Schrader have calluses on them. They are a workers’ movie, the type of story about men that have lived a lifetime before their middle age. From Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Affliction, and most recently First Reformed, his stories focus on an entirely different kind of masculinity. What comes with these kinds of stories is his own unique way of telling a narrative, which can be hit and miss, which is no different in his newest film The Card Counter. Much like the title suggests, this is a film that proceeds like an ice cold card player, with Oscar Isaac’s in the seat, playing a veteran of the Iraq war, who served time in prison, and made it valuable by learning the tricks of counting cards. His skills have made him a loner, and when he starts to become involved with other people, it’s when his haunted past comes back to get him. The Card Counter is a slow and methodical play, with dark secrets beneath the surface, and ready to deal a winning hand.

Isaac stars as William Tell- not his real name- who we meet playing blackjack, through voice-over expressing his inner thoughts, and how he learned to count cards. He honed the skill during his eight years at Leavenworth penitentiary, serving time after becoming the scapegoat of the U.S. military for torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and now that he’s back into the world, he’s using the skills he learned to make money in his own way. He keeps to himself, a mystery man, wrapping every piece of furniture in his hotel room with cloth to leave no marks behind. When a poker player rep named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) seduces him to use his skills to dominate high stakes tournaments, and then he meets a man named Cirk (pronounced Kirk- played by Tye Sheridan), whose father served alongside Will, who decides to tag along, with a plan to get revenge on the military general who trained Will to torture prisoners- Willem Dafoe in a role he plays with ease- giving him the reprimand he never received.

It’s safe to say that The Card Counter will not be a movie for everyone, with a narrative that has a methodical pace, often letting every scene marinate with tension. It takes this approach because it has various themes going on, as many of Paul Scharders films do, and it has a pace that feels calculated to a fault. This may also be the reason why I left with many thoughts, feelings, and emotions to ponder, often thinking about what The Card Counter is saying. At the core of it all is America and the state of it all, where the world continues to be unfair, punishing those that did as they were told, and rewarding those who know how to cheat the systems in place. What develops over time is a developing revelation of who Isaac’s character is. He’s a cold person, but as his heart softens for Haddish’s character, finding an appreciation for her mystery, and unassuming approach, is where his guard weakens. His view of Cirk is similar to a father figure, but also treating him like a charity case, and when Will uses his threatening skills to convince Cirk to do the right thing it reveals that his trust in humanity can be his downfall.

Similar to the way First Reformed was a showpiece for Ethan Hawke, The Card Counter is another high mark for Oscar Isaac. There arguably could not be another actor to play this role, which shifts between a sociopath, a gentle soul, and an incredibly intelligent person from scene to scene. It’s obvious that Scharder has been influenced by actors such as Robert Mitchum, Bogart, James Cagney, and Paul Newman because Isaac wears a leather jacket as cool as the rest, while slicking his peppered black hair back as cool as Elvis. It takes a certain actor to pull this off and Isaac is perfect in the part. As for Haddish, her attempts at dramatic roles continue to be problematic, where her acting often sounds like a table reading, and her chemistry with Isaac is one-sided to say the least. Casting Haddish may be right for the part, but wrong for the performance it deserves.

The climactic ending of The Card Counter unfolds in a similar fashion to the way First Reformed did, but unlike the latter, the final result here feels more right than wrong. A sense of hope for what humanity must live through. Now, I would not call the ending of The Card Counter to be a positive result, but it certainly feels like a message from Schrader about what life has to offer in what man can make of it. It seems like the best place for a person to be is kept to themselves, counting their cards, and hoping they have learned enough to survive in the game at the end. In Paul Schrader fashion, his films have much more meaning than what is laid out on the table. That’s what makes The Card Counter better than most pieces of cinema.



Written by: Leo Brady

Recommended Posts

Start typing and press Enter to search