Much like an expert poker player, writer/director Paul Schrader underplays The Card Counter. Instead of a flashier approach that boasts with style, Schrader captures the subdued focus and routine of a gambling sub-culture and its players. One of those players being William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a former serviceman who invests in high-rolling card games to keep himself distracted. It’s an efficient, time-consuming past-time that prevents William from possibly falling back into bad habits.
At a casino stop, William meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a disturbed younger man who soon divulges his plan to get even with unhinged military colonel Gordo (Willem Dafoe). The plan stems from the loss of Cirk’s father, who served under Gordo and was pushed towards suicidal thoughts the more he was exposed to the toxic and inhumane tactics of his superior. William, who also has a past connection with Gordo, is inspired to be a mentor for Cirk and overhauls his routine to help redirect Cirk’s troublesome fate.
Schrader’s adult character study is a little muddy at first; suggesting that William may also be keeping Cirk close because William can’t smother his addiction to danger, and wants to ride as close to his craving as he can without becoming an accomplice or a criminal. But by the halfway mark, it’s clear this character flaw was never in the cards for William. I think Oscar Isaac is excellent as the film’s stoic lead and Schrader’s script, while occasionally stilted, is deeply layered. Perhaps this misleading stretch is due to Schrader’s direction not being as honed in as it could be. I don’t mind being mislead, but this is more of an unnecessary mixed signal between the material and the viewer.
However, I think Schrader does a great job channeling the turmoil from his characters to the movie’s unique vision. I particularly liked the portrayal of military flashbacks in a wide scope that resembles nightmarish virtual-reality. The filmmaker also works well with his cast. Schrader works well with Isaac, as previously mentioned, but Sheridan’s performance has a special connection to the boiling anger that simmers throughout this story. The small but mighty ensemble also includes comic Tiffany Haddish, who’s charisma is portrayed through a sexier degree than what we’ve seen from her before. Usually sharing the screen with Isaac, Haddish commands the screen as she tries to dig underneath her screen partner’s reserved gambler.
The Card Counter is gripping in its own unique way, and a refreshingly mature take on character studies.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie