Review: “The Card Counter” bets on experimental cinema

The card counter

Focus Features

Paul Schrader’s latest film, “The Card Counter,” may seem like a game about gambling at first glance, but it really is the story of a broken man desperately trying to atone for his sins. While experimental filmmaking, storytelling techniques, and heavy themes are best suited to moviegoers, it is one of Schrader’s best work.

Oscar Isaac trades his X-wing for a deck of cards, playing the titular card counter, William “Will” Tell. Tell is a former military interrogator who uses card counting skills he learned in prison to walk the poker circuit anonymously. On the circuit, Will meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man on the way To revenge against Tell’s former military major (Willem Dafoe). Will decides to interrupt his ronin lifestyle to put Cirk on a new path, seeing a chance for redemption through his relationship with Cirk.

Paul Schrader is at his best when he delves into the souls of tormented men haunted by their past, like his films “Taxi Driver” and “First Reformed”. “The Card Counter” is another prime example of Schrader’s trademark history. With the film, he asks: “Is redemption possible?” Schrader answers the question by mixing the world of high stakes poker with Tell’s desire for salvation, putting Oscar Isaac in a position to deliver one of the best performances of his career.

While every performance in the film stands out in one way or another, no one surpasses Isaac. As William Tell, Isaac travels between a suave poker player, an interrogative ex-military trapped by his demons, and a man desperate for deliverance from his past. Tell often intervenes in the narrative through the voiceover. He remembers his days in prison or explains the rules of poker. These interjections are reinforced by Isaac’s woefully consistent tone – he’s the best cast for one of Schrader’s most tortured characters.

Tiffany Haddish gives the most surprising performance in this film as La Linda, a professional game manager and friend of Tell. Haddish’s comedic roots are apparent throughout the film as she brings most, if not all of the film’s few laughs. His performance contrasts perfectly with Isaac’s and their chemistry only gets more fierce as the film continues. Meanwhile, Dafoe is on screen for less than five minutes, but manages to create an antagonist worthy of hate. The weakest performance comes from Sheridan as Cirk, whose performance is random for most of the film.

Schrader takes a unique and unsystematic approach to this film, structuring it like a game of poker. Schrader acts as the dealer for the movie’s poker game, exposing the answers to the story at a deliberately slow pace. This rhythm creates tension on the film, and although the film is slow, there are only a few moments where it hangs out. Once all the cards are on the table for the film’s third act, the result is some of the best moments the film has to offer, making every slow moment worth it.

Schrader and Alexander Dynan, his cinematographer, frame the shots tightly and create a dark color tone to complement the film’s deliberately slow pace. Of everything in the film, the most well-shot scenes are where William Tell looks back on his time as a military interrogator. Dynan used a ultra-wide virtual reality lens, capturing a circular image that allows viewers to see every square inch of the prison where Tell spent eight years.

Schrader tells the story of another man seeking salvation from his past. With an excellent screenplay, outstanding visuals from Dynan, and Oscar-worthy performances from Isaac and Haddish, “The Card Counter” is sure to see a plethora of nominations this awards season.

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