Starring an exceptional Oscar Isaac, The Card Counter is a slow-burning noir thriller about a man who’s looking for redemption for the actions of his past.
“So you hollow yourself in the mercy of man, you just need something to find your way home,” sings Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s lead singer and songwriter Robert Levon Been as The Card Counter ‘s credits roll, in a song that perfectly sums up the themes of Paul Schrader’s (director of First Reformed, writer of Taxi Driver and longtime Scorsese collaborator) latest film, a crime thriller with noir undertones revolving around a man who’s haunted by the choices he made in the past. Forgiveness, guilt, revenge and redemption are some of the many themes approached by a slow-burning thriller that will have your full attention from start to end, as you follow its mysterious protagonist attempt to make amends for past behaviour whose “moral weight” is still very much on his shoulders, and ultimately try to forgive himself for the actions of a dangerous, self-destructive man who’s still partially alive within him.
Our enigmatic protagonist is William Tell (Oscar Isaac, of Dune), an ex-special ops soldier who, for reasons unbeknownst to us, was given a ten-year prison sentence when he was working in Iraq. When we first meet him, Tell has gotten out of jail, having served his term, and spends his days gambling, using card counting skills he acquired in prison and “sticking to modest goals” so as to not get caught winning too big by the staff of the many casinos he visits. But Tell doesn’t enjoy playing blackjack, poker and many other games, even though he usually wins.
To our complex protagonist, gambling is merely a way of “passing the time,” which is why he spends his days stuck in a constant state of limbo, isolated from the rest of the world and confined within a cell of his own creation, whose bars are made of all the actions from his past he has been trying to forget, and the guilt and regret he carries with him at all times. We don’t know much about Tell when we first meet him, but, as the film unfolds, more and more details come to light, giving us a clearer picture of an imperfect man and the secrets he keeps hidden, in a complex journey that will ultimately put him face to face with the sins from his past.
But Tell is not the only character who’s looking for answers in The Card Counter. Accompanying him on his quest for redemption are two unwitting companions, each with their own motivations and regrets — a young man looking for retribution, and a woman whose alliances switch when something unexpected happens. The former is “Cirk, with a C” (Tye Sheridan, of Voyagers), a heavy metal-loving college dropout who needs Tell’s help to execute a plan he hasn’t entirely thought through, in order to get revenge for something that may or may not have happened to his father—an acquaintance of Tell’s—in the past.
The latter is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, of Bad Trip), who is a “backer,” a gambling agent whose job is to bankroll star players in the interest of her employer, and who wants Tell to play in the World Series of Poker, taking advantage of his skills in the game. As Tell makes a series of choices whose ultimate aim only becomes clearer to us as the film progresses, Cirk and La Linda’s presence in his life also affects him, altering his journey in unexpected ways and eventually offering him another choice that might just offer him the redemption he strives for.
The Card Counter is a complex film, and one that asks you to be patient as all the pieces of the puzzle are revealed, one after the other. But it’s also a rewarding watch, offering a compelling mystery to solve, a series of incredibly human characters, and more than one unexpected twists that suddenly alter the pace of the film, demanding our attention with a script that contains enough intrigue to draw us in, enough surprises to keep us hooked, and enough clever developments and witty quotes to make us ponder life’s big questions.
Not only that, but the film’s cinematography (Alexander Dynan, of Goodnight Mommy) is simply irresistible, giving each setting its own distinct look and creating a world that we can almost feel, and that comes alive with desaturated colors when Tell is awake, and with nightmarish, bright sequences and frantic camerawork when he experiences flashbacks. During those scenes, Virtual Reality technology was employed to make the images flattened and equirectangular, and, as a result, we are able to effectively enter Tell’s mind and experience his demons in a highly immersive way, and experience highly tense, affecting scenes that give us further insight into a character that has gotten extremely skilled at not letting his emotions come through.
Speaking of Tell, part of what makes The Card Counter so effective is a superb performance from Oscar Isaac, who crafts a character with a tough exterior, and who keeps his “poker face” on even when he’s not playing, but whose true identity comes out when his most hidden emotions resurface. Proving incredible commitment to the character, Isaac excels at showing us as little emotion as possible when Tell goes through the motions of his everyday life, only to let it all out at key moments in the film.
This level of intensity invites us to deeply connect with a puzzle of a character who can be, at times, reasonable and rational, and genuinely care about others, but who can also be scary and dangerous, which makes the film’s most tense and shocking developments all the more meaningful and affecting. The rest of the cast is just as good, with Tye Sheridan inhabiting his character with confidence and showing us a young man who might not have experienced as much as Tell, but who’s just as real and multifaceted, and his chemistry with Isaac is undeniable.
Tiffany Haddish imbues La Linda, an essential character in the film, with a confident attitude and disarming earnestness that makes us instantly like her, and her contageous, larger than life personality hides a vulnerable core that Haddish never fails to bring out. Another key character in the film is played by Willem Dafoe, who employs his little screentime to make his Major John Gordo unforgettable.
Combining a meticulously crafted screenplay that leaves nothing to chance, a career-defining performance from Oscar Isaac, and irresistible world-building and cinematography, The Card Counter is a thoroughly original noir/crime thriller that explores universal themes with humanity and wit, all while offering you a puzzle to solve and compelling characters to decode. Paul Schrader’s film will crawl its way into your heart, and you’ll find yourself unable to stop thinking about it days after you’ve seen it.