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‘The Card Counter’ Review: Oscar Isaac fills the shoes of Paul Schrader's latest soul-searching wanderer

Schrader's latest study of a volatile and potentially eruptive personality is potent in its bleakness but doesn't completely have a handle on its own stakes.
Credit: Focus Features

SAN ANTONIO — In Paul Schrader’s latest plunge into the moral abyss, “The Card Counter,” a perpetually slick-haired Oscar Isaac plays the title character, ostensibly named William Tell, like someone with a plan. 

The signs are there in his eyes, even if specifics aren’t; Isaac accentuates his trademark quiet confidence with a statuesque poise through which William sees and moves through the world. It doesn’t crack whether he’s at the poker table or alone in his motel room, and an early sequence where he explains the schematics of card-counting is important not because we’re expected to recall the schematics of card-counting, but because it’s proof of William’s fast-moving, analytical mind. This, we’ve seen enough movies to confidently say, is someone who’s thought out his next 10 steps, 10 hours, 10 months. The thrill of the mystery tugs us along because, clearly, there’s a destination to be tugged along to

It’s halfway true. Schrader constructs a purgatory that’s so potent in its despondency, so fully felt in its lack of feeling and the sharp aural gasps rippling through Robert Levon Been and Giancarlo Vulcano’s score. Slowly but oh so unsteadily, our impression of William’s stare changes, even as his countenance doesn’t. A look of calculation becomes one of annoyance, or rage, or maybe melancholy, or maybe neither of these things or maybe all of them at once—we’re at a loss. The more we learn about William’s backstory and why he spent time behind bars at Leavenworth, the more we see he’s lost, too. Winning at cards gives him about as much control as he can hope for. But if he doesn’t have an endgame – “I stick to modest goals” – how can this story?

Thus is the volatile alchemy underpinning Schrader’s latest character study, anchored by another in the filmmaker’s long lineage of nondescript characters reckoning with the hands they’ve been dealt. Shuffling around from city to city, casino to casino, the solo-cruising William adheres to a simple agenda of playing the tables by day and philosophizing in his diary by night. The cycle, along with his single-outfit dress code, is all he has; on more than one occasion you wonder if Schrader has unintentionally made the definitive pandemic movie. In the writer-director’s eyes, a world of poker chips and expensive drinks and slot-machine ringalings that the movies tend to portray as nirvana is instead a mighty lonely place. Danny Ocean would waltz in and waltz right on out. 

What kind of comfort does our card counter find in this mechanical existence? What is he trying to find comfort from? Schrader, the narrative architect of “Taxi Driver” and “First Reformed,” has a way of making us feel like we’re searching for the plot—not disoriented but not entirely sure of what we’re orienting ourselves toward. William drones on about moral weights and lingering terrors of confinement, and it isn’t until “The Card Counter” does an aesthetic somersault into what we assume is some state of his mind or phase of his life that we begin to get an idea. It’s a place of grimy textures, damagingly loud heavy-metal music, a fish-eyed perspective that seems to stretch the screen before us...it’s a place of anarchy, that is, rooted in militaristic atrocities and in almost every aesthetic respect contrasting the solitary existence he finds himself in now. I don’t think the movies have created a more potent vision of hell this year. If these two modes are what William is being tugged between, what hope is there? 

Hope, of course, tends to take unusual, thorny shape in Schrader’s movies, which are less about ushering us through a narrative than through his character’s inner plights. And in William’s we find glimpses of Travis Bickle (only William drives a Ford Fusion, not a taxi), shades of Reverend Toller (only William prefers a cherry in his whiskey, not Pepto Bismol). It isn’t a place of alienation where his movies unfold but somewhere Schrader perceives as far grimmer: Anonymity. What’s unique about the setup of “The Card Counter” is William has long identified with that anonymity by the time we’re introduced to him. It remains to be seen whether anyone can save him from it, or what that resurrection would even look like. 

There are two candidates: Tiffany Hadish’s La Linda, who runs a professional gambling “stable” and partners with William to maximize their profits, and Tye Sheridan’s “Cirk with a C,” who tries appealing to a very different, more ruthless side of William that he’s trying to lock away for good. Schrader strings these dynamics early and spends the next two hours or so thrumming them, sometimes at lackadaisical tunes, sometimes at teasingly dangerous ones. “The Card Counter” returns the bracingly bleak mood and industrial tone of “First Reformed,” but while that movie is propelled by an urgency in the face of inevitable ecological crisis, this perhaps-redemption story wanders through the aftermath of personal, guilt-ridden cataclysm. 

That isn’t a flaw so much as a recalculation on Schrader’s part, and also on the part of the audience once we realize William’s future is indeed as open-ended in his eyes as it is in ours. Scattered through that emotional arithmetic are exponents we don’t expect to see – light-hearted banter and seemingly asynchronous bursts of yearning – but if these moments are at first off-putting it might be because Schrader has so stealthily ushered us into a passive post-apocalyptic existence so familiarly dour that it may yet reveal something about our own realities. His is a movie about simmering anger with no outlet, and the most captivating thing about it is Isaac's sterling turn as someone unsure what he’d do if he found himself in the dealer's seat. So it only stands to reason we spend the majority of its running time wondering the same thing, turning anxious possibility and suspicion over in our heads with more of a raised eyebrow than a furrowed brow. “The Card Counter” is a film that’s tough to embrace with open arms. Then again, what Schrader movie isn’t?

"The Card Counter" is rated R for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality. 

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe

Directed by Paul Schrader

2021

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