Writer and director Paul Schrader has explored masculinity and redemption throughout his career, going way back to when he penned the script for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in the 1970s. Revisiting these motifs once again, his latest crime drama The Card Counter treads the complex path of William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a mysterious ex-con who turns to betting after a stretch in prison. On his travels, he takes troubled youngster Cirk (Tye Sheridan) under his wing and when presented with a lucrative opportunity by new friend La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), he embarks on a poker-playing mission in an attempt to atone for his sins.
A lot of this film takes place in casinos against the ambient sounds of roulette wheels and slot machines, but this is no ordinary gambling movie. With the help of a pulsating score and an old-fashioned aesthetic, the usual allure is stripped away as Schrader crafts an intoxicating, seedy atmosphere. Think of a whisky-stained style more akin to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight rather than the gloss and glamour of the aforementioned Scorsese’s Casino.
In this contained environment where day seamlessly bleeds into night, William can bluff a weak hand of hold ’em in the same way he bluffs through life, trapping himself in a meticulous routine of drab motels and the ‘modest goals’ of low stakes card games, whilst drifting from one town of bumfuck, America to the next. This is of course his existence of choice; a far safer punt than reconciling his guilt over his horrific past, seen only in lurid flashback sequences of depravity shot with a fisheye distortion that deliberately clashes with the established rhythm of the narrative.
Subtlety isn’t always Schrader’s strong suit and at times he hammers home his ideas with obvious metaphors and religious imagery. Even the protagonist’s moniker is a folkloric reference to muddied heroism. This somewhat heavy-handed approach could’ve sent William, or ‘Bill’ to his acquaintances, into an absurd caricature of PTSD suffering, but Oscar Isaac reins this in with a well measured turn. His engaging internal monologue lets us into his mathematical, methodical mind as he talks the viewer through card-counting at the blackjack table, but he presents the version of himself that he wants us to see. Sharply dressed and with slicked back salt n’ pepper hair, he’s as cool as he’s ever been, but there’s a dark, compelling intrigue that builds in his performance throughout. In-keeping with the character’s want for anonymity, the cast is pretty slight; Willem Dafoe, a frequent collaborator of Schrader’s, is present briefly but effectively as a retired veteran who serves the plot of Bill’s absolution.
Paul Schrader doubles down on his career-defining themes of moral responsibility with The Card Counter, dealing us an intense and absorbing exploration of fear and self-loathing through the lens of a brilliant, no-limits gambling film.
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