Casinos, hotels and poker tables transform into a corrupt ecosystem in Paul Schrader’s intensely atmospheric work The Card Counter. Despite a poor lead performance and an uninteresting main character, The Card Counter is a dark and moody work that successfully entertains and engages, reaching new heights for the experienced director.
A low voice is heard in the opening minutes of The Card Counter. “I hate confinement,” slurs William Tell (Oscar Issac), an ex-American soldier turned professional gambler who served time for war crimes. This experience drastically changed the former military man whose pre-prison life was more adventurous. Freshly released from prison, Tell manifests routine; the stoic character travels from casino to casino, city to city, counting cards to win modestly, enough to cover his travel expenses but not enough to draw attention.
Joining Tell is Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a drifter in his early twenties hellbent on killing Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), a weapons contractor whose support for questionable war tactics led to the penalizations of Tell and Cirk’s father, both of whom took the fall for Gordo’s mishaps. When Cirk reveals his plans to Tell, the gambling pro takes the brash kid under his wing to steer him away from a life of despair and anger, something the former soldier — whose brutal war sins continue to haunt him — knows too well. The quick-witted La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) becomes Tell’s backer (lingo for inventor) for nationwide poker tours. The two spark a romance, and in an apparent reversal from the comparable Schrader-penned Taxi Driver — where the maddened Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) screws up his love relationship — Tell wants to make it work with La Linda. He works to forgive others and himself to not descend into a fit of madness, a throughline that comes to a head in the film’s audaciously seething climax.
Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan skillfully utilize their visual palette to overwhelm the viewer with Tell’s perspective. In flashback scenes at a U.S. prison in Abu Ghraib, where Tell was a guard, a fish-eyed lens squeezes naked bodies at the edges and flattens out the central figures of army officials. Men in authority beat prisoners with an arrogant, psychopathic irritation that grows with each kick to the victim’s gut. The sequences eerily mirror Tell’s traumatic experience of recounting his darkest days, with the sudden appearance of the flashback scenes representing the sudden presence of the past that trauma brings. Memory — which is never perfect in recounting but is always centered on something — aligns faithfully with the fish-eyed lens, which elongates its objects in its center, ignoring things in its obscure periphery. Schrader also employs Robert Levon Been’s sung lyrics like motifs of a score, with the musician’s breaths and songs decorating The Card Counter, fusing with the visual design to emanate Tell’s bliss and fury.
Despite its inventive qualities, The Card Counter suffers from a questionable trajectory of its main character; it’s somewhat hard to believe such a quiet, impassive man with a checkered past would suddenly become an attentive boyfriend and father figure. Issac’s performance doesn’t help, as the actor fails to spellbind or charm, especially in emotionally charged scenes when Tell recounts the sadistic environment of prisons. Issac is stronger the less he’s expressive, but The Card Counter wants to pull its hero out of a hermit state, and a different actor could be more suitable — though the writing is shoddy when it comes to Tell’s journey.
Like Taxi Driver, The Card Counter uses the banal everyday job tasks of its ex-military main character as a platform to build toward the soldier’s descent into madness. However, Tell is more noble and sensitive than past Schrader characters, and love and affection are ultimately expressed through the frame. The Card Counter may not earn its final destination, but it makes for one hell of a ride.
Mo Muzammal is a freelance film critic based in Southern California. His interests include Pakistani Cinema, Parallel Cinema and film theory.