The Card Counter

Written and Directed by Paul Schrader

Starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan

“You win, you walk away. You lose, you walk away.”

The minimalist existence. Sleepless nights writing in a journal with a bottle of whiskey close by. The heavy weight of a dark past and the spiritual quest for atonement. A desire to be human in an inhumane society. 

This is the cinematic world of Paul Schrader, and it is a powerful place to be. His films represent, in Schrader’s own words, “a connection between a religious upbringing and my profane presence.” The characters who inhabit his films are outsiders. They exist in a dark world where violence and sex are the most detailed parts of our psyche and, for some of them, the blunt expression of their need to be recognized through the only forms of communication they know. Schrader’s characters are people who live in but exist beyond the material world.

The Card Counter” is (like most of Paul Schrader’s filmography) a bold,intense, and profound work. A character study/thriller about the weight of sin and the crooked path to salvation.

In the best performance of his career, Oscar Isaac is William Tell, a card player and former U.S. soldier who spent eight years in a federal prison. A man constantly on the move, Tell goes from one casino to the next, constantly using his skills to keep himself level and focused. Ever the traveler, he stays just long enough to make considerable winnings and get out of the door before the pit bosses discover his ability to count cards and beat the house. This is no profession for Tell. He plays cards to make money and has no desire to become famous or to have his name known amongst the poker circuits. This is not his profession but a way of staying focused and alone.

Tell lives modestly and makes just enough to live well for a man who is always in motion, but the character is a tortured soul. He was an interrogator at the Abu Ghraib facility and his time behind bars was a direct result of his actions there. He was not the only soldier to take a hard fall. He and his regiment were sold out by their superiors who furthered their careers while Tell went to prison and another had a mental breakdown that led to suicide and the destruction of his family. 

Schrader’s flashback scenes to Abu Ghraib are stunning. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan shoots them with a fish-eye lens, giving Tell’s memories an askew and almost surrealist tone while simultaneously capturing the reality of the atrocities committed there. The memories of that violent place exist as a pure Hell. 

While inside the military prison, Tell began a zen-like existence where he began to embrace the never deviating routine while teaching himself to count cards. On the outside, Tell carries with him the need for routine. His hair is always the same. He only wears one or two different outfits. He covers his hotel rooms with white sheets, unplugging TVs, phones, and clocks, removing any distractions. When he is alone in the room with his pen paper and thoughts, there is nothing else. There can be nothing else. This is a self-made constraint that is necessary to purge his thoughts and distance himself from disorder.

Into his emotional exile comes Cirk “Kirk with a C.”, played by the great young character actor Tye Sheridan. Cirk is a young man with a troubled existence and a dangerous goal. Almost immediately, Tell begins to want to help Cirk and an uneasy bond forms when he invites the young stranger to travel with him. 

 Cirk wants to kidnap the main military contractor (a well-used Willem Dafoe) who was responsible for the orders that caused his father to kill himself. He wants to give Dafoe’s character the same inhumane torture he trained the soldiers to do. After the torture, Cirk wants to kill him. 

As Tell bonds (as much as possible for a man such as he) with Cirk, he wants to build up a “nest egg” to give to the young man, in the hope that he will not enter that world of violence that Tell knows so very well. He wants to give him money to pay off debt and make peace with his mother and to perhaps try and live a normal life for a young man of his age. 

The other character to throw Tell off his intended orbit is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a woman who runs a stable of card players, finding them financial backers. She wants Tell to work for her exclusively much as Nina Van Pallandt’s Anne wanted Richard Gere’s Julian to trick exclusively for her in Schrader’s 1980 piece, “American Gigolo”. 

Haddish is a real surprise here. Her performance is sanguine and sincere. This is light years from her work in Hollywood comedies. La Linda is a confident woman whose draw toward William Tell becomes something beyond professional. As he submits to his own feelings about La Linda, the heat (not just sexual) that Haddish and Isaac display is believable and moving. Sincere kudos to Tiffany Haddish for her wonderful performance.

Schrader creates the mood through Dynan’s camerawork and the Ambient Rock songs of Robert Levon Been, the son of late singer/songwriter Michael Been (founder and lead singer of The Call), whose music Schrader used to absolutely brilliant effect in 1992’s “Light Sleeper”. The tattoo that adornes Isaac’s back is a quote from one of Michael Been’s songs used in “Light Sleeper”. 

Robert Levon Been carries his father’s torch in this film, as his songs are a potent troubadour telling the story of how Tell sees the world and his place within it. 

It is no secret that Paul Schrader is in love with the films of Robert Bresson (and rightfully so), especially the filmmaker’s masterpiece of a morality tale, 1959’s “Pickpocket” and his 1951 “Diary of a Country Priest”, as well as the collective works of Yasujiro Ozu. These filmmakers crafted cinematic Art that was never theatrical, each one paced to allow the characters to breathe life, the filmmaker’s patient styles becoming almost transcendent. The influence these two masters had on Schrader can be seen in many of his works, continuing with his latest. 

As Ozu and Bresson before him, Schrader is rarely interested in the conventional. A search for grace and the ability to live purely while confronting destiny runs through the director’s films. He lets the character’s actions and emotions tell their story. While each of Schrader’s films are exquisitely directed and have plots that may be deceptively familiar, the director has always been more interested in his characters navigating, as he once put it, “The connections between what they call luck and what we call grace… the struggle for some kind of divine magic that will protect them.

Oscar Isaac was the right actor to bring off Schrader’s themes, inhabited fully in the character of William Tell. Blessed with a natural intensity, Isaac’s performance is the perfect balance of heaviness, danger, and calm. Although Tell tries to suppress it (while also carrying a self-penance fueled longing to go back to prison), there is a good soul inside this man. He can be frightening and unnerving, but his humanity isn’t gone. The kindness and understanding La Linda shows toward him and the plight of young Cirk may just unearth a long buried compassion, allowing Tell to find deliverance.

In the film’s final moment, the camera holds on the most intimate and profound shot of Schrader’s career, and Robert Levon Been’s words are almost directed exclusively to the character of William Tell, “A spire of dreams are the finest of things, you just need someone to carry you home…” 

“The Card Counter” is another striking work from one of our finest screenwriters and directors. The lost soul living life in solitude. The chance for absolution. The stark realities of fate. No living filmmaker does this better than Paul Schrader. 

R, 109 Minutes, Focus Features