Throughout his career, writer/director Paul Schrader has delved into the dark soul of man and stirred up the contents within its murky depths. Films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead, The Walker and First Reformed have all shone a light onto the shadowy nature hidden within men’s souls. Now Schrader has added The Card Counter to this pack of broken protagonists. It’s an exceptional piece of filmmaking, with a powerful central performance from Oscar Isaac. Isaac’s turn in Schrader’s film is the not only the best performance of the year, but it’s also the best of the actor’s career.
Isaac is William Tell, a professional Card Counter who makes a living on the gambling circuit. He keeps his bets and his winnings modest so that he doesn’t attract the attention of the casino bosses. Tell learned his trade in prison over the course of a decade following a conviction for prisoner torture in Abu Ghraib. Understanding the cards he’s been dealt, Tell leads a quiet life until he accidentally comes back into the orbit of the man who trained him – Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Tell also meets Tye Sheridan’s Cirk, a young man whose life has also been affected by Gordo’s time as an interrogator. Cirk has a plan for revenge, but Tell takes him under his wing and tries to teach him the gambling way with the aid of Tiffany Haddish’s La Linda. Things go well at first, but fate always has a way of dealing an unexpected hand…
A wonderfully constructed character study, The Card Counter impresses on every level. As previously mentioned, Oscar Isaac’s performance is flawless – if he doesn’t score awards heat for his turn as the titular Card Counter then there’s no justice in the world. It’s a performance which delivers anger, repression, fear and stoicism – the fact that Isaac is able to achieve everything he does is remarkable. Tye Sheridan also does fantastic work as Cirk. Sheridan delivers on being the callow youth, but his performance has many layers. Tiffany Haddish‘s La Linda doesn’t quite impress as much, but that might have to do with the construction of Schrader’s screenplay and the fact that The Card Counter is about the many failings within the male psyche.
Alexander Dynan’s cinematography adds a certain bleak beauty to America’s never-ending parade of motels and casinos, while Robert Levon Been’s score is beautifully hypnotic. The visuals and music work in synchronicity with Schrader’s screenplay to help make The Card Counter’s characters come alive. Been’s score literally breathes life into the film.
Perfectly constructed in every way, Paul Schrader‘s The Card Counter is a film which is steeped in the filmmaker’s rebellious, take no prisoners aesthetic. The film also features a flawless, measured turn by star, Oscar Isaac. It’s not hyperbole to say that Paul Schrader might just have delivered the film of the year.