By Ben Furgang | September 20, 2021
While “The Card Counter” may at first glance seem to be a standard, by-the-numbers gambling drama, director Paul Schrader’s latest work is anything but. It’s a powerful character study that, like many of his films, depicts a man tormented by his past and disconnected from his present.
Schrader, best known for his work as screenwriter for Martin Scorcese’s masterpieces “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”, is very good at depicting these types of troubled characters. Many of his protagonists are struggling to come to terms with their pasts and are forced to put all their energy into something else – usually something unhealthy. “The Card Counter '' has an impeccable sense of pacing and dread, increasingly building toward what feels like an inevitably violent conclusion.
The film follows William Tell, a complex character with an equally complex past, played with restraint and nuance by Oscar Isaac in what is easily his best role since 2013’s “Inside Llewyn Davis”.
Tell is haunted by his time spent as a torturer at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War, and finds himself unmoored following his release from a decade-long stay in prison. While Tell deeply regrets his actions, he takes full responsibility for what he did, and says numerous times that it was his own choice. Tell’s unconscious need for confinement and structure – which is an important theme the film presents – draws him toward gambling, though it’s important to note that overall, “The Card Counter” is not a gambling movie the way traditional films about gambling are. There are not any high stakes, as Tell himself doesn’t even care about gambling. It’s used merely as a means to an end, a distraction for him, and the film presents casinos as being just one step away from prison. There’s an emphasis on the garish indoor lighting, cramped tables, windowless walls, and Tell’s repeated refrain that “You can never tell what time it is.”
Tiffany Haddish, Willem Dafoe, and Tye Sheridan also play supporting roles, to varying degrees of success. Schrader employs a non-naturalistic style of acting in the film, meaning every actor comes across as a bit deadpan and uncomfortable. Isaac and Sheridan are skilled in this – Sheridan specifically has starred in lots of films requiring similar performances – but for someone like Haddish, who is naturally charismatic, it’s easy to tell she’s actively trying to hold back in certain ways. While her character is well-written and pivotal to the story, her performance only works about half of the time.
The film’s visuals are also a mixed bag. Certain sequences seem hastily and lazily shot, especially many of the conversation scenes. The scene early on when William Tell first speaks with Tye Sheridan’s character is framed almost like an interview, and it’s unsatisfying to look at. On the other hand, there are multiple moments in the film that seem inspired, such as the nauseatingly wide-angle flashbacks to Abu Ghraib, or the stunningly lit date scene in the second half of the film. When this film looks good, it looks good, but that’s just not always the case.
While “The Card Counter” is not among the absolute best of Paul Schrader’s films, it’s a tightly wound slow-burning thriller that proves in spades that he’s still on top of his game.
The Card Counter is now playing locally at Crossgates Mall and downtown at the Spectrum 8 theater.