REVIEW: ‘The Card Counter’ is a terrific slow-burn in a fast setting

Paul Schrader is back with another pessimistic film that earns a positive score.

Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell in “The Card Counter,” a man who after serving a prison sentence, lives on the road traveling from casino to casino. Tell is able to count cards and is strong poker player, but he never tries to make more than he needs to survive. It soon becomes clear that he’s troubled by something in his past.

Tell’s life begins to change, though, when he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the college-age son of a soldier he knew while serving. Around the same time, he meets a woman named La Linda, who convinces him to begin playing professionally under her management.

“The Card Counter” is very much about the concept of redemption. What is redemption? Are there things that can’t be redeemed? What paths can lead to redemption? This film explores those questions throughout the runtime.

The audience learns very early on that while serving in the military, William took part in the horrific Abu Ghraib abuse incident during the Iraq War. His prison sentence was for his role in the abuse and the man is still clearly consumed by his actions.

The film details how since leaving prison, William tries to make his motel rooms seem like a jail cell, as he has found solitude and a muted atmosphere to be the only way he can get by. The inner turmoil is thoroughly on display, and as an audience, we can clearly see the man is struggling with what he did.

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Courtesy Focus Features.

That’s where Cirk and La Linda come in. Cirk has resentment toward his father’s and William’s superior for how the individual basically got away with it, while those previously mentioned went to prison.

In Cirk, William finds an opportunity to be a mentor, and to set someone on a better path than the one he went on. With La Linda, meanwhile, William begins finding hope in a potential romance.

These two relationships offer insight into how William struggles with inter-personal communications because of his baggage, but tries to take steps forward regardless. The film focuses on how these relationships not only offer a route to potential redemption, but a sense of calm that William can possibly achieve.

The brilliance of “The Card Counter,” written and directed by Schrader, is how difficult that path is. Each step William takes forward is a difficult one, and his grim outlook featured in this film is wonderfully captured through the script.

Another aspect making this really work is Oscar Isaac. William is a character with deep inner-turmoil and Isaac does exceptional work in portraying the strife. There’s rage and regret underneath the calm, mysterious demeanor that William has, and it’s all thanks to Isaac. It’s his best performance since “Inside Llewyn Davis” from 2013.

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Haddish deserves a lot of credit, too for her performance. This was probably the best acting work of Haddish’s career so far, portraying a character that exudes confidence quite nicely.

The film’s is also benefitted by strong performances by Sheridan and Willem Dafoe.

“The Card Counter is also majorly benefitted by its camerawork. Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan made a visually memorable picture, with a lot of style at play. Notably, the flashback scenes to Abu Ghraib are filmed in a major wide-angle lens, causing the moments to be even more unsettling.

Also credit-worthy is how the film maintained its atmosphere. The colorful slot machines, flickering casino lights, vibrant green gaming tables with a host of different characters and fancy bars that are staples of gambling locations are all present. However, they’re shot, lit and colored in a way that keeps the look muted, keeping with the somber tone of the movie.

“The Card Counter” isn’t as strong as Schrader’s 2018 movie “First Reformed.” The transition to the third act and ending seemed a little rushed in comparison to the slow-burn approach most of the picture had.

Still, this is a very strong film with superb writing, great acting and a praise-worthy visual identity. 4.5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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