In The Card Counter we meet another of Paul Schrader’s lost loners, with Oscar Isaac joining actors as varied as Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver) and Lindsay Lohan (The Canyons) as the latest in a series of souls seeking salvation, redemption, expiation in a do-or-die struggle with their own human frailty.
In familiar Schrader first-person voiceover William Tell (Isaac) explains how he learned to count cards while in prison serving an eight-year jail term for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Tell goes into some detail explaining how card counting works – high value cards score minus one, low value cards plus one, the other cards nothing at all – and how it’s useful only when playing blackjack, where it can shift the odds away from the house just enough to confer an advantage on the counter. Aware of the fact that casinos will eject anyone they believe to be counting, Tell stays beneath the radar by not drawing attention to himself – he’s a medium stakes player who politely says thanks for a good game as he leaves the table to collect his modest winnings.
All this changes when he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man investigating the death of his father, also an Abu Ghraib guard, who’d come home from Iraq, got addicted to oxycodone and shot himself. And changes a bit more when Tell agrees, after a bit of hustling on her part, to go in with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a casino habitué who runs a stable of players. Off the three of them go on a journey to win big and make amends for sins committed in the past.
Schrader loves these dark, nighttime worlds but knows he’s in territory so familiar that he needs to make it clear he knows we know – hence a reference to The Cincinatti Kid early on – and there’s a lot in The Card Counter that we’ve seen before. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Tell lives a life of monastic asperity – when he checks in to the latest motel room he removes the paintings from the walls and then covers all the furniture with sheets tied on with twine. Oscar Isaac even apes some of the De Niro style early on, as does Tye Sheridan – do nothing, look intense, nod your head – so the presence of Tiffany Haddish as the warm, open, fun La Linda is a massive bonus. She’s the best thing in this film by a stretch.
To be fair to both Isaac and Sheridan, when their characters’ personalities shift, so do their acting styles, and both men break free of the gravitational pull of old stars’ star turns decisively when Schrader starts leading them towards a showdown with Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the US Army major and “bad barrel” who made a “bad apple” of Tell and the other Abu Ghraib torturers.
Schrader doesn’t just have Bush-era politics in his sights. In the shape of Mr USA (Alexander Babara), a fellow card player who dresses in the stars and stripes and is followed by an entourage who chant “USA! USA!” whenever their champ eliminates a rival, he’s also got Trump-era America in his crosshairs. A scriptwriter’s cursory attempt to tie the two eras together.
While it’s a good film, I kept thinking, “Imagine if Martin Scorsese had directed this” all the way through (it was the Martin Scorsese Presents splash up front that did it), because no matter which way you turn him, Schrader isn’t a director’s director, or even a director’s second-unit director. But in spite of flabby do-nothing shots and regularly coming into a scene way too early, Schrader keeps the energy up and manages some neat transitions.
If it all starts to look like 1940s noir stylistically and in terms of framing the further into the journey it travels, that’s familiar Schrader territory too. And the added bit of melodrama to wrap things up neatly also suits The Card Counter very well.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021