Over the course of Paul Schrader’s career, he has gifted cinema audiences with absolute gems either as a screenwriter (most notably in his collaborations with Martin Scorsese) or a director (American Gigolo, First Reformed). He has also fallen short on more than one occasion, The Canyons being the most recent example. So where does The Card Counter stand on Schrader’s list of hits and misses? Well, somewhere in between both camps.
One of the reasons this thriller is a hit lies in its leading man. Oscar Isaac, who stars in three offerings here at the Venice Film Festival, is in every scene, the camera often zooming in on his face, picking up every flicker, every twitch and every change of mood. Isaac plays ex-soldier turned card counter and poker pro William Tell. He has done time in military prison, where he learnt to count cards, and is now touring the casinos of the US east coast, making a tidy living from his blackjack and poker wins. Whether wearing his best poker face or struggling to recount his heinous crimes at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, Isaacs makes for compelling viewing, drawing you in and keeping you riveted in your seat. And when he suddenly reveals his torturer mode, he is truly terrifying.
Tell’s quiet life is disrupted by a chance meeting with a young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan) during a talk about facial recognition given by Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). The connection between the three men is the Abu Ghraib and when Cirk outlines his plan for Gordo, Tell decides to take the youngster under his wing. Sheridan has been turning out reliably excellent performances since he was a child and he and Isaacs are an impressive pairing.
Less impressive is Tiffany Haddish. She plays La Linda, who runs a stable of poker pros and seeks to add Tell as her latest thoroughbred acquisition. While Haddish’s natural likability and charm are on display, there is little to suggest a grittier, more ruthless side which surely must be a requirement in the world of international pro-poker tournaments. She lacks the steely intelligence of Jessica Chastain’s character in Molly’s Game and is the weakest of the three main characters. It was also a shame not to see more of Dafoe, who is underused here.
Schrader is a little too heavy handed in parts, for example with the ‘USA’-chanting poker pro – a clear dig at Trump and his supporters – who we see too much of. The torture story aside, there is little here to surprise, the narrative leading to a fairly obvious denouement. Yet while there are flaws, The Card Counter remains a solid and enjoyable watch. It provides some useful lessons in gambling (stick to the roulette tables if you’re a novice) without overloading the viewer with too much information. It is a reminder of the horrors perpetrated by the US (and not only) in their prisons-cum-torture centres. It is an admonishment of those in power who allowed the lowest ranking men and women take most of the blame. And of course, there is that brace of great performances, particularly that of the terrific Oscar Isaac.