Paul Schrader has spent a lot of his profession peering into the darkish abyss of troubled males’s souls. He creates one other topic eminently worthy of such examination within the title determine of The Card Counter, who goes by the assumed title of William Inform and is performed by Oscar Isaac in an intense efficiency with the damaging magnetism of Al Pacino in his early Michael Corleone days. A companion piece of kinds to First Reformed, that is one other bruising character examine of a solitary, burdened man who processes his most intimate ideas in a journal, dwelling along with his guilt till he’s handed an sudden alternative for redemption.
From the cool retro font of its opening credit, displayed over the textured weave of baize card-table material in excessive close-up, this Focus launch has an edgy Seventies throwback really feel regardless of its up to date setting. It finds writer-director Schrader as soon as once more in a reflective mind set, pondering the boundaries of punishment whereas blurring the road between expiation and self-destruction. That facet is properly countered right here, nevertheless, by the jazzy vitality of the early scenes as Alexander Dynan’s digicam slinks across the tables of varied casinos and William explains the principles. Blackjack is his sport of alternative, however he’s no slouch at poker both.
The Card Counter
The Backside Line
Deal me in.
As in First Reformed, Schrader makes use of intensive voiceover not because the lazy storytelling fallback it so usually turns into, however as a key to offer entry to the thoughts of a protagonist who chooses to disclose little about himself. And to ship fast primers on the principles of every sport and the particular methods a talented skilled gambler can beat the home.
“I by no means imagined myself as somebody suited to incarceration,” says William, explaining how he tailored to a protracted stint in Leavenworth, having fun with the unvaried routine and the studying time. It was there that he realized how you can depend playing cards. He strikes from city to city, performs small casinos and retains his wins modest sufficient to keep away from undue consideration. William is just not enjoying to get wealthy, simply to cross the time, even when the shadows dogging him recommend he’s something however relaxed.
Playing agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) spots him as a thoroughbred whereas she’s constructing a steady of poker match gamers bankrolled by an nameless backer. William declines her provide to hitch at first, however adjustments his thoughts when he meets somebody he might help, a misplaced younger man to function his penance.
The visions in William’s sleep of torture and interrogation carried out by a U.S. navy particular ops unit in an Iraqi jail trace at his previous. But it surely’s not till a way into the movie that Schrader reveals William was one of many fall guys court-martialed after the Abu Ghraib scandal, whereas senior officers who engineered the human rights violations remained free to reinvent themselves within the non-public sector.
One such shady determine is the person now referred to as Main John Gordo (frequent Schrader collaborator Willem Dafoe in hard-as-nails kind), whom William sees giving a chat at a safety convention for correctional officers at a hotel-casino. A younger man within the viewers, Cirk “with a C” Baufort (Tye Sheridan), acknowledges William from images as a former soldier from the identical unit by which his late father served, each of them skilled by the sadistic Gordo.
The shame for Cirk’s dad led to suicide, and after dropping out of college and severing ties along with his mom, the son now needs to settle the rating. Cirk, who has a half-assed plan to make Gordo pay, tells William that when he noticed him he thought, “Right here’s a person who would possibly desire a piece of what I’m gonna begin.”
As a lot because the ethical weight of his actions in Iraq nonetheless plagues him, William tells the child that he refuses to be consumed by ideas of a previous he can’t erase. As an alternative, he sees in Cirk an opportunity to do some good, offering mentorship and monetary help to get him again on monitor. However this can be a Paul Schrader movie, so the trail of fine intentions inevitably is paved with violence.
The later plotting loses some stress as the main focus is cut up amongst a playing match, a low-flame romance between William and La Linda, and William’s graphic accounts to Cirk of what it was actually like in Iraq. Whereas the child initially enjoys hanging out in resorts and casinos with play cash supplied by William, he quickly begins to seek out the life repetitive: “I don’t know if it’s actually going anyplace.” The identical suspicion briefly creeps into the movie. However Schrader regains the momentum as Cirk fails to carry up his finish of their discount, forcing William right into a direct reckoning along with his previous.
Even with that trace of midsection story slackness, that is nonetheless a extremely managed piece of filmmaking with an unerring command of tone. In William, Schrader has created one other anguished protagonist numbing his ache in an existential void, going from city to city and on line casino to on line casino, every one very like the final. There’s a pointy visible distinction between these bland interiors with their cheesy carpets and outdated décor and the stark Iraqi jail delivered to to nightmarish life in William’s descriptions of “the noise, the odor, the violence.”
Schrader disdains standard payoffs, so whereas he units up one peripheral character for humiliation — an obnoxious showboater who travels the playing circuit along with his personal cheer squad — that doesn’t occur; and the promising emotional connection between William and La Linda hits a bump. Even the ultimate match is deserted earlier than the successful hand is performed because the film veers off on a startling new curve. However William’s self-sacrificial street out of purgatory supplies a form of bloody deliverance, one which’s extra in step with the writer-director’s defining themes whereas not extinguishing all hope. The particularly Christian notion of forgiveness is intrinsic to Schrader’s work, no matter the intense lengths his misplaced souls go to with a purpose to earn it.
The haunted high quality of the central character, in limbo between sin and salvation, is successfully echoed within the authentic songs composed for the film by Robert Levon Been, of Black Insurgent Bike Membership.
It’s good to see Haddish increase her vary in a dramatic position, enjoying towards kind as a pushed but cool buyer in a discipline the place studying individuals is a necessary talent. In a single scene that’s a visible stunner, La Linda coaxes Michael exterior his ascetic routine of resorts, casinos and generic eateries to take a stroll within the illuminated Missouri Botanical Backyard at night time. She’s actually inviting him to contemplate the probabilities of magnificence and vitality, and the chemistry between the 2 actors actually clicks throughout their exchanges on this magical setting, so alien to the world the movie in any other case inhabits.
Sheridan’s character is much less satisfyingly developed, and whereas he conveys the simmering volatility of a younger man set on revenge however missing the wiles to orchestrate it, he struggles to say a lot of a presence in scenes with Michael.
That’s additionally as a result of Isaac is such a remarkably compelling pressure — even within the many scenes notable for the bodily stillness of a person whose eyes clock every little thing. In one of many movie’s strangest components, its which means left open to interpretation, William, on arrival at every new lodge, removes white drop cloths and string from his baggage and methodically wraps all of the furnishings in his room. Dressed immaculately in what’s nearly a uniform of a cosy leather-based jacket over a shirt and tie, his darkish hair slicked again and marked by a bolt of grey, this can be a man who seems to be to create the outward impression of order and management. However the torment gnawing away at his insides isn’t unsure.