The Card Counter is billed as a revenge thriller, but everything from its pacing to the stylistic choices crafted by writer-director Paul Schrader makes it more of an introspective slow-burning noir.
Oscar Isaac Gives an Intense Performance in The Card Counter
The card counter in question is William Tell, played by Oscar Isaac, whose past is loosely revealed in the opening scenes. After spending eight and a half years at Leavenworth for an, initially, unknown crime, he has made a living driving from casino to casino playing Blackjack and Poker. He’s a loner who thrives on the monotonous predictability of gambling. But below the clean-cut, monotone, tight-fitted clothes he wears, it’s clear that there is something sinister lurking just beneath the surface.
Isaac excels at portraying a man who is a hair’s breadth away from coming unglued. In The Card Counter, he sells the regimented repetition, intense self-loathing, and manages to convey remarkable amounts of emotion through dead-eyed glares and self-restricted control. As the film meanders to a point where something akin to a happy ending is within reach, you can watch the exact moment that William Tell lets his guard down. It’s subtle, but incredible to watch as Isaac loosens his shoulders, unclenches his jaw, and metaphorically reaches outside of the box Tell has constructed around himself. His performance alone makes the film compelling, in spite of a largely unremarkable script.
The cast is small, which emphasizes the surprisingly small world around Tell, despite his frequent trips up and down the eastern seaboard. Cirk (Tye Sheridan) and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) come into his life in short succession. If The Card Counter is about revenge, then it’s because Cirk is driven by the sins of his father — a man who Tell knew when he was in the military. Cirk tries to enlist Tell into helping him kidnap and torture Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), but Tell has other ideas.
William conceives a plan where he and Cirk will drive around the country, playing poker games that La Linda arranges for them, and he will make enough money to help Cirk pay off his college debts and get his life back in order. It’s a noble desire, one that audiences will root for along the way. Despite the revelation that William Tell was involved in the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the enhanced torture practices dealt there, you do genuienly want to see him persevere. Especially as you watch him try to relate and make connections with the people around him.
Schrader utilizes a lot of metaphors, visual cues, and circular storytelling to underline the unending torture inflicted on those that were responsible for the horrors in Abu Ghraib. William Tell is an obviously tormented man and a man capable of truly horrific stuff. The film never sugarcoats, even while it makes you sympathize with him.
While the script is not particularly strong, Schrader excelled at drawing lines between specific instances throughout it. A conversation Tell has with Cirk about the concept of tilting in gambling eventually comes full circle when Tell tilts, high on winning in real life, and his house of cards collapses. The film starts and finishes with nearly identical monologues, mirroring the circular themes explored in the film.
One element that I have not seen addressed in many other reviews is the extremely on-the-nose gambler that is ever-present at the poker games that Tell plays. Mr. USA — a flag tee-shirt wearing card shark with a pair of groupies that chant “U.S.A!” obnoxiously everywhere he goes. The character seems like the perfect foil to Tell as he grapples with the horrors that he inflicted in Abu Ghraib under the direction of the United States. The irony doesn’t stop there, as it’s revealed in a single piece of dialogue early on that the player is actually from the Ukraine. It’s a subtle nod and it’s delivered masterfully.
Another intriguing component is the film’s sound design. Tell references how loud sounds disturb him, connecting it to what occurred in Abu Ghraib — which forced me to focus on the audio design of The Card Counter. In particular, there was a sharp contrast between the quiet music playing under scenes, while others blared at an uncomfortable level when his attempts at finding normalcy crumbled.
Overall, The Card Counter is compelling if you overlook the fact that 80% of the film is just Oscar Isaac narrating as he plays cards with steely glares. The film doesn’t play its hand until the last twenty minutes, which can make for a tedious experience for audiences expecting a little more thrill in a thriller. There are a few cringy comments about Asian gamblers, jarring footage of torture, and the uncomfortable reminder of what the United States allowed to happen in Abu Ghraib and how the people actually responsible got off scot-free.
The Card Counter is in theaters on September 10th. Check out local listings to find showtimes.