Bolstered by a powerhouse performance by Oscar Isaac, Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter is a substantial piece of work; re-uniting Schrader with his Taxi Driver/Raging Bull creative partner Martin Scorsese is a coup in itself, and there are times when The Card Counter delivers on that promise. But while the details of this story of a compulsive gambler are often persuasive, a series of flashbacks to US troop atrocities in Abu Ghraib prove to be indigestible in this context; Schrader is a terrific writer, but bites off just a little too much here.
Amusingly named William Tell, the titular character is played by Isaac as something of a straight-arrow. Having mastered the art of card counting while in prison, he’s a sure-fire winner at the casino table, although getting his winnings and getting out of the room before security catches him is an on-going issue. Tell hooks up with pro card shark agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) and also decides to train up a young protégé named Cirk (Tye Sheridan). But Cirk has a different angle to play; he wants revenge on a shadowy military contractor named Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) and Tell’s secondary-mission is to find redemption by talking the young man out of his potential crime…
Schrader has history with gambling and military vets, and it’s easy to see why this story would appeal to him, meshing preoccupations that have haunted him since the 1970’s. But as with his recent First Reformed, there’s an element of overload here; Abu Ghraib is shown as a living hell via a fish-eyed lens, with hideous death-metal on the soundtrack. That’s a movie in itself, but by treating it as Tell’s backstory, Schrader doesn’t give himself space to explore it in a meaningful way. That’s not to say that the final dramatic twists don’t land, but The Card Counter’s narrative is too split to have the emotional impact required.
While some will find Tell a hard character to warm to, it’s a tribute to Isaac that he manages to make him worthy of a place in Schrader’s gallery of anti-heroes, from American Gigolo to Affliction. Cold-eyed, intense, moving like a shark through gaudy casino floors, Tell is a character study with existential trappings; it’s just that his past and his present don’t quite gel dramatically. But for all these complaints, this is a gripping film that rewards a cinematic viewing; times change, but Schrader’s caustic yet sympathetic view of mis-applied masculinity is always a cut above the norm.
Thanks to Universal Pictures for access to this film, out now in UK cinemas and also streaming in the US.