This weekend is the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, so it’s fitting that The Card Counter comes out as one of the better films about that seismic event in American history. It’s more powerful for not addressing the subject head-on and for doubling as the best poker movie I’ve seen since Rounders.
Our hero calls himself William Tell (Oscar Isaac), and he gambles at casinos all over America, playing blackjack with a card-counting system so that he wins enough to live on but not enough to be blackballed. He’s hiding a secret, which is spilled early on by a young gambler named Cirk (Tye Sheridan), whose name is an unusual spelling of “Kirk.” He knows that Tell’s real last name is Tillick, and that he did eight years in prison because he was one of the soldiers who tortured and murdered Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. Cirk’s father was also there before winding up hooked on Oxy and killing himself. Meanwhile, the ex-Army major (Willem Dafoe) in charge skated away from prosecution because he was a private contractor, and now he’s living a cushy life as a security consultant. When Cirk hatches a plan to go to the major’s house in Virginia and repay him in kind, William tells him to back off, but it inevitably plants a seed in his mind.
William is the latest lonely, self-flagellating male protagonist created by Paul Schrader, whose previous film was his best work in my estimation, First Reformed. If you ever binge-watch all of Schrader’s movies, you’ll overdose on all these men anguishing over the nature of sin and the possibility of redemption in the eyes of God. This film has its hero writing down his thoughts in a journal while drinking alone in his spartan room, and this isn’t Schrader’s writing at its finest. I wonder whether anyone watching this actually needs a refresher on the rules of Texas hold ’em.
At least the elliptical suffering is cut by Tiffany Haddish, who slaps the movie with her palm as a middle man named La Linda who recruits gambling crackerjacks and stakes them so they can compete in high-level tournaments. Her smoothness is a welcome tonic as La Linda finagles William into the World Series of Poker. She’s that rare creature, a Schrader character with a sense of humor. She also takes him to the Missouri Botanical Garden, which has been strung up with a Vegas-like light display, and shows him that there’s beauty in the world if you just get away from the gambling tables long enough. Schrader isn’t the keenest director visually, but he does make a good choice in shooting the Abu Ghraib flashbacks with a fish-eye lens, bringing home the squalor (physical and otherwise) of that prison in a new way.
Also helping is Isaac’s chill mastery as a man who maintains that poker face even when he’s away from the table. We know this man by his routines — he stays in cheap motels because the hotels attached to casinos have staffers who spy on the gamblers, and he carefully wraps the furniture in his motel rooms in white bedsheets that he packs in his luggage. Contrast that with the gleeful way he invites a beating from another inmate in federal lockup. His chill turns to ice, too, in William’s scenes with Cirk, including a monologue describing his experience at Abu Ghraib (“You just try to keep your head above it and surf the crazy”) and a scene where he uses his experience as an interrogator to strongarm the kid into giving up his plan to kill the major. With a lesser actor in the lead role, The Card Counter becomes mopey and indifferent. Isaac’s performance gives this thriller the backbone it needs.
The Card Counter
Starring Oscar Isaac and Tye Sheridan. Written and directed by Paul Schrader. Rated R.