Time: 111 Minutes
Oscar Isaac as William Tell
Tiffany Haddish as La Linda
Tye Sheridan as Cirk
Willem Dafoe as Major John Gordo
Director: Paul Schrader
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a gambler and former serviceman who sets out to reform a young man seeking revenge on a mutual enemy from their past. Tell just wants to play cards. His spartan existence on the casino trail is shattered when he is approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a vulnerable and angry young man seeking help to execute his plan for revenge on a military colonel (Willem Dafoe). Tell sees a chance at redemption through his relationship with Cirk.
I had been hearing about The Card Counter for a while, it would be Paul Schrader’s next movie starring Oscar Isaac in the lead role. I liked Schrader’s writing work on Martin Scorsese’s movies like Bringing Out the Dead, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and I really liked his last directed movie First Reformed. So I was looking forward to what he would do with The Card Counter and he didn’t disappoint.
As you can probably predict already, The Card Counter is yet another character study from Paul Schrader about a lonely protagonist with degrees of self-destructive behaviours (like Taxi Driver and First Reformed) and is suffering with guilt and suicidal tendencies. You might say that the story is treading familiar ground and there are certainly similar themes especially when it comes to morality, but I found it compelling nonetheless. The film does a good job at getting into the mindset of his character, and we learn more about him and how he’s trying to leave behind a past he can’t escape. The plot might seem to meander a bit as it is about Oscar Isaac’s character going from place to place with Tye Sheridan playing cards and gambling while interacting with people, and we learn more about him during this. However I was invested in what was happening all the way through. Don’t watch the incredibly misleading trailer, the film is nothing like how it represents the movie and you’d be only doing yourself a disservice. Despite the title and about the main character being a gambler, it’s very much not that kind of movie. Essentially, The Card Counter is about consequences and guilt, with focus on the acts of torture during the War on Terror. It’s particularly about the problems that veterans face and the responsibility in systematic torture at Abu Ghraib prison, especially when it comes to Isaac’s character and how he was involved. The Card Counter is firmly a slow burner and is very meditative, so don’t expect that hour and 50 minute runtime to fly by. However I thought that pacing really worked for the film.
There’s a great cast in this movie, and everyone plays their parts well. Schrader’s next troubled protagonist William Tell is played by Oscar Isaac and this might be the best performance I’ve seen from him. He’s very believable and convincing, coming across as calm, mysterious and slick on the outside, but there’s clearly some stuff simmering beneath the surface. He’s superb in the part and carries the movie excellently. There’s also a really good supporting cast in Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish and Willem Dafoe. Sheridan gives one of his best performances as a younger man who Tell tries to steer onto a better path. Haddish was a great counter to Isaac, she’s very different to him which makes their relationship so much more interesting. Dafoe is only in a few scenes but plays a critical role and as usual plays his part fantastically.
Paul Schrader directs, and his work here is great. He certainly uses familiar techniques, such as the voice over from the protagonist. It even has scenes of the protagonist lying in his bed or writing in a journal at a desk paired with a liquor of their choice (just like First Reformed). Nonetheless it fitted very well with this story. It’s a very well shot movie, I particularly liked the long takes, and some of the visuals could even be hypnotic and dreamlike. The two highlights for me were a long take passing through a prison with a fish eyes lens, and the other has Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish at a light show which was visually stunning to watch.
The Card Counter is a stylish, layered and thematically rich character study. It’s excellently written and directed by Paul Schrader, and has great performances from the cast, especially from Oscar Isaac in the lead role. It’s definitely not for everyone, as I said it’s a slow burn character drama, not a fast paced ‘gambling movie’. However, if you’ve like some of Schrader’s other work like First Reformed, I think you’ll enjoy The Card Counter.