The Card Counter review – Oscar Isaac delivers a high-stakes hypnotic nightmare. When a chance for a terrible rebalancing appears in Paul Schrader’s caustic drama, Isaac is an army veteran who has gone professional gambler.
This is a film by writer-director Paul Schrader and producer Martin Scorsese about gambling that opens with a closeup of the queen of spades – I’m guessing it’s a sly reference to Thorold Dickinson’s classic Faro, in which the queen of spades is such an ill omen.
Schrader has returned to the themes of male power, fragile hope, and overpowering sadness that he explored in his 1974 drama Taxi Driver in a nocturnal world of crime. Naturally, the film’s resemblance to Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver is obvious. What exactly did Travis Bickle do in Vietnam? (Or is it the fact that we don’t know?) What if instead of a young girl, he was attempting to redeem a young man rather than an adolescent girl?
A professional gambler works privately in various small-scale casinos throughout the United States, not in the Las Vegas league: this is William “Tell” Tillich, depicted by Oscar Isaac, who has a sultry sleepy-eyed address to the camera, making him appear weary, gaunt, and even lizardlike. William counts cards at blackjack: that is, he memorizes every card played and uses his data to predict when to bet big but maintains his earnings modest so as not to get banned. He has a passion for poker, regardless of what happens. William has cultivated tremendous personal resilience, card abilities, and toxic self-hatred while serving time in jail. Every budget hotel where he stays, William removes all of the photographs and wraps the furnishings in sackcloth to create his room resemble a cell or something far worse.
During a hotel poker tournament, William enters one of the side events at a commercial convention on ex-military security measures and encounters Cirk (Tye Sheridan). Cirk offers to assist William in poisoning someone from their mutual acquaintance. Cirk counter-offers by proposing that he come with him on the road and learn about gambling. William seems to want to guide Cirk – instruct him to channel his rage and pain into the casinos’ soulless but inoffensive world, just as he has? However, William isn’t teaching Cirk anything useful about card games: is this merely a guise so that he may take advantage of Cirk’s murderous scheme?
The film is excellent at depicting the casino’s airless, emotionless atmosphere as well as the gloomy scenario of the poker tournaments’ opening rounds, in which players are crowded together in something as unglamorous as a bingo hall. William and Cirk are a little like a less intimate version of George Segal and Elliott Gould’s tragicomic buddy pairing in William and Cirk, or perhaps more like Philip Baker Hall and John C Reilly’s master-pupil gambling relationship in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight in 1996.
At the precise instant when something wonderful is taking place in his life, if only he could see it, Cirk arrives in William’s life. La Linda, played by Tiffany Haddish, approaches William and asks him if he would be interested in becoming a professional for various high-roller backers of her acquaintance; however, she has strong feelings for this coldly reserved tough guy, and Haddish adeptly conveys her hurt sentiments when William blunderingly informs her how much their “friendship” means to him.
Schrader has constructed an intense and vociferous film that is hypnotically watchable and filthy, with nightmarish flashbacks and a typically apocalyptic conclusion that grows plausibly enough out of what preceded it. This high-stakes game creates a disgusting, queasy tension.
Now playing on Cinema HD.
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Distributed by: Focus Features
Release dates: September 2, 2021 (Venice), September 10, 2021 (United States)
Running time: 112 minutes
Country: United States