Oscar Isaac headlines this low-key, slow-burn thriller about a poker player with a haunted past, directed with the minimum of fuss by Schrader.
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Plot: William Tell is an ex-military interrogator living under the radar as a low-stakes gambler. When he encounters a young man looking to commit revenge against a mutual enemy, he takes him on the casino circuit to set him on a new path.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
International Sales: Hanway Films
Subject Matter: Moderate – Guilt; Torture; Haunted Past
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: In Theatres – The Projector
Fresh from Venice 2021, The Card Counter is the latest—and umpteenth attempt—by Paul Schrader at portraying a loner with some kind of skill who is troubled by his past, but operating in a comfortable if stagnant space that seems to lead nowhere. So, he shall find his purpose and redemption.
Oscar Isaac headlines as William Tell, a highly-intelligent poker player who has mastered the art of winning at the game, though his philosophy is rather meek—win small, lose small.
This considering his past is marked by brutal aggression, one that still haunts him to no end, and as wilfully triggered by a young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan of Ready Player One), on a chance encounter.
“There’s a weight a man can accrue.”
It’s an old-school slow-burn thriller that Schrader is fully capable of, though The Card Counter feels more low-key than some of his other output. The first half of the film feels quite meandering to me, with the narrative taking a while to find its footing.
Once we have gotten a better sense of each character’s motivation—and more importantly, what kinds of stakes they are dealing with—do we begin to picture where the film might go.
This journey with William and Cirk becomes more convincing if we understand what Schrader is trying to do here—that each person has to eventually know what he or she wants to accomplish and the path that needs to be taken to do that, even if motivations are hidden and consequences explicit.
Probably for the first time in William’s or Cirk’s life, they have to win big and be prepared to lose big… and it’s not even related to poker.