Paul Schrader brings his intense trademark style to the world of gambling in Focus Features, The Card Counter. William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a gambler and former serviceman who sets out to reform a young man seeking revenge on a mutual enemy from their past. William just wants to play cards and succeeds in his day-to-day gambling by betting small and thus winning small. His frugal existence on the casino trail cracks when Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a vulnerable and angry young man, approaches him. Cirk is seeking help to execute his plan for revenge on a retired military major named John Gordo (Willem Dafoe).
William sees a chance at redemption through his relationship with Cirk. He gains backing from a mysterious gambling financier La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), and takes Cirk with him on the road, going from casino to casino until the unlikely trio set their sights on winning the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. But keeping Cirk on the straight-and-narrow proves impossible, dragging Tell back into the darkness of his past.
One of the first things I want to point out about The Card Counter is that the film isn't about gambling or getting over on the man through some scheme. I can admit that based on the trailer and the first fifteen minutes or so in, I thought that was the route the film would take. Sitting in the theater, I even casually mentioned to my wife that I thought Cirk would be our pivot character. However, having seen Paul Schrader’s previous film, I should have known better.
Oscar Isaac delivers another masterful performance as William Tell, a man haunted by the demons of his past. Whether it's the close-up on his eyes or shift of his hands, Isaac is at the top of his game here. I also enjoyed the characterization that the film’s script gives Tell. Sans brief scenes about his life as a military interrogator, the film never reveals much about the past of Tell. There were a few that highlight his odd habit of covering his motel room furniture in sheets and wrapping them with twine. However, this little detail plays an integral part in the film later on.
Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe both deliver solid performances and have significant interaction with Oscar Isaac. However, after Oscar Isaac, I have to say that I was most impressed with Tiffany Haddish's character. This film isn't the first time the comedian has done drama (The Oath and The Kitchen were where I first began to take her seriously), and as La Linda, Haddish is much like the film's moral compass. Haddish has the lightest role in the movie of the four leads, but there is never a moment where she cracks a joke. Haddish is serious for the duration of her time, and the rumor is that director Paul Schrader forced Haddish to strip away all of her natural comedy stylings, and it shows.
My one gripe about The Card Counter is like most Paul Schrader films; the pacing is slightly off-putting. The climax of the film, where everything comes together, and another great performance from Oscar Isaac do make up for this issue though. While The Card Counter isn’t for all tastes, I recommend the film for fans of the director and the cast.
Final Grade: B