Paul Schrader's films are almost always about troubled men coming to terms with their own foibles. From 1979's Hardcore to 2002's Auto Focus to 2017's First Reformed, he has a way of diving into the demons that haunt his characters so that you can identify with them, even if your own demons are nothing like theirs. The Card Counter follows in this tradition, giving us a protagonist so deeply disturbed by the actions of his past that it sends him down a path of misplaced atonement.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) spent the better part of a decade in prison for his role in torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib. He learned to count cards during that time, and now travels a casino circuit, playing Blackjack until his luck starts to become conspicuous. On this loop, he's reunited with old acquaintance La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), an agent who helps professional gamblers find sponsorship. She wants to sign him up, but William is reluctant, preferring to stay low-key.
He also meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man he invites to travel with him as he moves from casino to casino. Cirk is looking to get revenge against a security specialist named Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Since Gordo was William's commanding officer at Abu Ghraib, Cirk thinks he might want to join in the effort. William has no initial interest in this; his only intention to help his protégé get out of debt.
Of course, all of this blends together as The Card Counter goes on. Oscar Isaac radiates a quiet power as William, showing us how trying to help Cirk is his way of alleviating the guilt he feels over his actions at Abu Ghraib. Taking La Linda's offer is a means of making that happen, although it goes against everything he believes in. Underneath it all is the burning anger at Gordo for getting away with human rights violations while he served time. That rage continually simmers inside. Playing the character as a guy who holds his emotions as close to his vest as he holds his cards, Isaac creates a portrait of a man struggling to keep himself together while internally feeling as though he's coming apart at the seams.
Schrader uses his screenplay to dive into the notion that people are capable of doing horrific things they couldn't consciously envision themselves doing. The Abu Ghraib scenes are filmed with an unusual (and massively effective) camera technique that make the sides of the image look like they're rolling away. It's purposefully disorienting – a representation of the bewilderment William feels in being part of such inhumane treatment. The director also gives us more subtle glimpses of how damaged his lead character's psyche is, including his compulsive need to wrap his motel rooms in sheets. Psychological drama is additionally wrung from his attempt to discourage Cirk from doing something he himself would like to do at some level.
William uses gambling as a distraction from his pain, and The Card Counter benefits from a carefully-observed look at life inside casinos. Schrader doesn't glamorize it, he makes it look like a form of hell, where every day is exactly the same despite the change of scenery from place to place. At one point, Cirk even comments on how boring it all is. The approach is clever, suggesting that William uses this boredom to keep his emotions tamped down.
Isaac's riveting performance in this multi-layered story makes The Card Counter a potent, probing drama about guilt and the quest for a sense of redemption. Haddish and Sheridan are outstanding in their supporting roles, and the glimpses into how gambling works – provided by William in voiceover – are not only educational, they also infer that the character is trying to make life choices with the same deliberateness with which he plays cards. In a career full of good movies, this is one of Schrader's best.
out of four
The Card Counter is rated R for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality.. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.