From just its synopsis and promotional material, writer-director Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter will seem familiar. It’s a crime-revenge thriller grappling with themes of atonement, forgiveness, and the role of violence in both. The protagonist is a stoic loner who reflects obsessively on his life’s condition and projects mystery to hide his haunted past. The sleek, controlled aesthetic is speckled with neon lighting (a result of most scenes taking place in casinos) and accompanied by a brooding, electronic score. These are descriptions you have likely encountered before, and depending on how much you enjoyed the movies that come to mind, you might even be pre-forming your opinion of The Card Counter as you read them. But I recommend withholding judgment and reserving your ticket, because for me, that feeling of familiarity only made it easier to see what makes Schrader’s film different – and, frequently, better.
The so-called William Tell (Oscar Isaac) lives a difficult, lonely life. A pseudo-professional gambler who learned to count cards during his time in prison, he strategically travels from casino to casino, timing his trips with whatever conventions will fill the card tables with sloppy amateurs. He wins without fail and leaves before he can attract any heat from the house, preferring to remain under the radar. But his pattern is disrupted by two separate encounters. First, La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a fellow professional who runs a “stable” of poker players, offers Tell the financial backing required to play at the big tournaments; he declines, but notices something between them he cannot shake. Then, he is approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man whose father served time for participating in the torturous interrogations at the infamous Iraqi prison, Abu Ghraib. He recognizes Tell as another of Abu Ghraib’s former interrogators, proclaims him a scapegoat, and offers him the chance to go after one of the bigger fish that should have been fried.
The story that follows this setup does not deviate much from what we expect it to be, but the magic of The Card Counter is truly in the telling. Schrader constructs his film with a restrained intelligence, pulling back on style and detailing and pathos to ensure what is there is invested with meaning. A great example is Tell’s motel check-in ritual, in which he takes down paintings and wraps every piece of furniture in his room in white sheets, leaving his temporary living space uniform and barren. In a lesser film, this might just be a quirk to present him as alienating or damaged, but Schrader prods us to really consider why he would do this. Is it some ascetic attempt at penitence? Does it provide comfort by resembling his former prison cell? Or is it some residual habit from his days as an interrogator, originally intended to limit blood stains? The film can support all these readings, indicative of the way it invites us to consider the significance of those key things that stand out.
The performances, too, are remarkable. Isaac plays his archetypical anti-hero-seeking-redemption as somewhat hollowed-out, full of emotion and insight but lacking the spark that comes with an unburdened life. Haddish and Sheridan carry that spark in the way they move and talk and engage with the world, to the point that they can sometimes seem to clash with the film’s rhythm – as if La Linda and Cirk, not Tell, are the ones out of place. There are many such elements that manifest the richness of the film’s storytelling, and The Card Counter is best when allowed to simmer in the back of your mind, where my esteem for it has continued to grow. However, I must fault it for being unable to achieve the emotional effects it so clearly desired. The film reveals its thesis in the final moments, and while I believe I understood its message, I was painfully aware of my not feeling it the way I was meant to. As an artistic experience, The Card Counter offers a great deal to its audience – just not quite as much as it aimed to.