In those truly high stakes games in life, it’s about much more then the cards in your hand…
Having debuted at Venice and now rolling into theatres this Friday; Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter is a masterstroke of a character study that has a delicious amount of uncomfortable swagger to it which makes it feel like Fast Eddie Felson himself was trying to make his own version of a John Frankenheimer or Robert Bresson film.
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. Tell sees a chance at redemption through his relationship with Cirk. Gaining backing from mysterious gambling financier La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), Tell takes Cirk with him on the road, going from casino to casino until the unlikely trio set their sights on winning the World Series of poker in Las Vegas. But keeping Cirk on the straight-and-narrow proves impossible, dragging Tell back into the darkness of his past.
Lots of audiences won’t be prepared for the layers that this film has because The Card Counter (much like Schrader’s previous film First Reformed) is not only a story of redemption but one of the eternal struggle of finding inner peace from the demons inside your own head.
At its core, it’s a film about self-awareness and the need and desire to pay a penance for horrible deeds that one has witnessed and taken part in. In many ways this feels like Schrader is diving into the collective consciousness of the human existence and channeling it through this one man whose desire in the rest of his chaotic life is to stay under the radar and live inside a very exacting system. Our lead, played by Oscar Isaac is a man of control, but one who lives on the edge of madness as he processes the things that he bore witness to during the Iraq war. Schrader makes him a man that is filled with a kinetic electrical aura about him that has to be seen to be believed.
Schrader weaves us in and out of the mid-level casinos the United States with sleazy aplomb because as much as our characters fit in these settings, they never quite feel like they belong either. He has given us characters that are yearning for any kind of peace, which is why they all intersect at this time.
Isaac gives William Tell an obvious and almost ethereal quality to the character as someone who is almost out of the time that he is living in. He knows his need to exist, but doesn’t necessarily want to and needs to regimented structure of either prison life, or life on the road to know where he truly stands. It’s an absolutely stellar performance as he allows this man, who is genuinely tortured in his existence to have these very self aware levels about his purpose on this planet.
Tye Sheridan is solid opposite him as the wayward young man on a path for revenge that ultimately tempts Isaac’s character down a path that he was trying ever so hard to avoid while Tiffany Haddish was excellent as a woman who knew how to thrive in a very cold world while trying to find someone to honestly care about.
All three have excellent chemistry as they interact with each other representing three emotional levels of where they all want to be. While Sheridan’s character has the tunnel vision of one emotion, Isaac knows about them all and is guarded against them as Haddish’s character knows the pains of her past and can see them in Isaac no matter how much she is drawn towards him.
There couldn’t have been a better time for The Card Counter to hit theaters because it’s a story of people looking to hit the reset button on their own lives. Where one isn’t aware of the ultimate cost that his desires will cost him, there’s another who is overly wary of opening herself up to another person and Oscar Isaac in the middle of it all in a heightened character glimpse of man who knows the difference in the cards that he should play and the ones that’s he’s trying like hell to fold.
The Card Counter is easily one of the best films of the calendar year that demands to be seen.