While he may not be as well known as his collaborators, the name Paul Schrader still commands respect among movie fans. He enjoyed his greatest success as a writer, working on four films with Martin Scorsese including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, while also directing hits like 80s smash American Gigolo and Oscar winner Affliction. After a while in the wilderness, a late career flourish seemed on the cards with 2017’s critically adored First Reformed. He looks to continue that momentum with The Card Counter, a film that evokes the gritty 70s storytelling that made his name.
Produced by Scorsese, it stars Oscar Isaac as William “Tell” Willich, an expert card counter who lives a solitary life, making just enough from the casinos to avoid suspicion before moving to the next town.
One afternoon, he is approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man with a link to William’s past as a soldier convicted of torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Both he and Cirk’s father were fall guys for their superior, Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe), and Cirk is seeking revenge. Travelling together on the gambling circuit, William tries to dissuade Cirk from his path, as perhaps find redemption for himself.
From the opening titles – bold credits placed on a textured casino table surface – there’s a sense of Schrader returning to familiar ground. It’s another tale of a purgatorial existence, following a man clinging to traditions as a means of coping with the past.
The coolness of his approach on the table is offset by Schrader’s garish portrayal of modern professional gambling, a performative world of mirrored sunglasses and alter egos, such as Mr USA (Alexander Babara), the closest this world gets to a running gag. The writer/director uses the windowless stasis of the casino floor to examine a man’s soul, dashing between tournament qualifiers and unsettling military flashbacks. It’s not perfect, and the deliberately thoughtful pace may lose some viewers, but there’s no doubting this trip is going somewhere, especially with Isaac behind the wheel.
Still wowing cinema audiences in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the Golden Globe Winner has always been comfortable navigating his way through complex stories. It would be easy to play William as a methodical loner, wrapping his motel furniture in sheets to avoid leaving any traces, and offering gambling advice in his narration. However, there’s so much going on beneath that fastidious façade that makes you lean in closer. One of the most talented actors to break through in the last ten years, Isaac is so much more than his Star Wars misadventures allowed him to be.
The star enjoys a playful chemistry with Tiffany Haddish, the comedy star who simmers as La Linda, the head of a gambling stable looking for a new “thoroughbred”. Sheridan provides an obnoxious counter to William’s measured lifestyle, wading into a dangerous game without much thought of the consequences. He may not be the most empathetic character, but proves vital in the pressure cooker of the third act.
While less impactful than his last film, The Card Counter is well cast and rewards those who invest in its slow build. The Schrader renaissance continues, and that’s a big win for everybody.