Paul Schrader’s new film “The Card Counter” is another compelling character study which deserves to be mentioned along with many of his notable works. Just like “American Gigolo” (1980) or “First Reformed” (2017), the movie presents an austere but intense character drama about one particular solitary hero, and it is often captivating to observe how its detachedly confident hero deals with a few other characters around him while frequently holding cards behind his back.
In the beginning, the movie succinctly establishes its hero’s unorthodoxly stoic handling of his life and profession. While he was incarcerated in a military prison for several years due to a reason to be revealed along the story, William “Tell” Tillich (Oscar Isaac) had thoroughly mastered how to play and count trump cards because that gave him something to focus on during his long incarceration period, and he has utilized his mastery of cards fairly well since his release at many gambling spots, but he has always been cautious and rigorous about that. He usually wins, but he never tries that too much for avoiding drawing any unwanted attention from those casino management and security guys, and that is how he has been under radar with a constant stream of cash for him.
When he is not ‘working’, Tillich mostly stays in motel room, and he only concentrates on cards or writing his personal journal there. As observing how he always covers the furnitures of his motel room with white sheets in advance, you will sense a sort of religious devotion from him – and how lonely and isolated he really is just like many of Schrader’s memorable movie heroes including the agonized priest played by Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed”.
And then two different people unexpectedly come into Tillich’s small world. At one big casino, he happens to be noticed by a woman called La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), and she is willing to connect him with some investors to promote him at a series of big national poker tournaments to be held around the country. Tillich is not particularly interested as he wants to stick to his solitary independence as usual, but, as he talks more with La Linda, they come to feel more mutual attraction between them.
Meanwhile, he also encounters a lad named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) at a certain big conference into which both of them come for each own personal reason. After instantly recognizing Tillich, Cirk tells Tillich a bit about his personal plan involved with one certain speaker at that conference, and, though he sharply points out how unprepared Cirk is in many aspects, Tillich eventually lets Cirk accompany him as a sort of protégé in addition to accepting the offer from La Linda.
As these three main characters come to roll together from one point to another, the movie comes to feel like a mix of gambling and road movie, but it continues to intense and reserved just like its hero. While we later get to know more of his dark past associated with not only Cirk but also Cirk’s target, we are never quite sure about what exactly Tillich is planning behind his back – even when he confides his feelings and thoughts to his little diary as usual.
Steadily maintaining the level of its subtle tension beneath the screen, the movie shows some sense of humor at times. I was amused by the frequent appearance of a cocky gambler who is quite different from Tillich in many aspects, and I also enjoyed how Tillich and La Linda often push and pull each other during their little private moments. Tillich prefers to stick to business as usual, but he cannot help but feel more attracted to her vivacious warmth, and she seems to be willing to go further if he lets his guard down a bit more for her.
In the end, Schrader’s screenplay culminates to a crucial point where its hero must handle two different situations together, but it does not lose any of its calm attitude even around that point. I will not describe this part in details for not spoiling any of your entertainment, but I can tell you instead that how the movie deftly hands out surprises for us like a skillful croupier, and the eventual finale is satisfying on the whole although its delivery feels a little too hurried in my inconsequential opinion.
Above all, the movie is carried well by another excellent performance from Oscar Isaac, who has been one of the most interesting actors of our time since his notable supporting turn in Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (2011). In addition to being dry, slick. and confident as required by his character, Isaac masterfully depicts his character’s inner turmoil and conflict without exaggerating at all, and he is especially captivating when his character must do something very drastic to Cirk at one point later in the story.
A few notable performers around Isaac are equally solid. While Tye Sheridan complements Isaac well with his naïve appearance, Tiffany Haddish dials down her usual comic intensity to some degree for showing a more serious side of her talent, and Willem Dafoe, who previously collaborated with Schrader in “Affliction” (1997) and “Adam Resurrected” (2008), is insidious as another substantial supporting character in the story.
Overall, “The Card Counter” is a fascinating piece of work to be admired and appreciated, and Schrader demonstrates here that he is still one of the most intelligent American filmmakers. Yes, he has unwisely caused several controversies during last several years, and I personally think he deserved that, but I also have to admit that he is still a talented one as before.