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Stylish ‘The Card Counter’ shuffles up and deals

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I’ve got a long-standing fascination with movies about gamblers and gambling. The combination of inherent insular tension and a tendency toward morally complex and ethically flexible characters results in films that hit me just right. Doesn’t matter if the story is meant to be redemptive or if we’re just spending time in this world or if we’re living somewhere in between – I’m here for it.

“The Card Counter,” the latest from auteur writer/director Paul Schrader, definitely exists in that nebulous middle ground. It’s a character study of a professional gambler who attempts to find some small degree of atonement for his past sins, only to wind up drawn back into darkness.

It’s also a throwback, evoking the spirit of ‘70s New Hollywood – unsurprising since that’s the era in which Schrader cut his screenwriting teeth. It is aesthetically distinctive and meticulously paced, telling the sort of small-scale yet sweeping story at which he excels. And by placing a talent as significant as Oscar Isaac at its center, Schrader ensures that the narrative is in supremely capable hands.

Isaac stars as William Tell, a professional gambler. William is a grinder, a man who travels from casino to casino utilizing his particular set of skills to win just enough to make a living, but not so much as to draw the attention and ire of the people who run the various gambling establishments he frequents. Among those myriad skills is the art of card counting, a talent he developed while in prison.

See, William spent years in prison – military prison to be specific. He was one of the soldiers to face consequences for acts of torture – sorry, “enhanced interrogation” – committed against prisoners at Abu Graib. The guilt over his actions remains close to the surface, driving him to develop an assortment of tics and defenses against the world outside, as well as a tendency to keep people at arm’s length.

Things shift for William when two people enter his orbit. One is a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) – and yes, with a “C.” Cirk’s dad was punished for similar actions to those taken by William, but his aftermath was even bleaker. And so, Cirk is looking for revenge, specifically against the man credited with teaching these enhanced interrogation techniques, a former officer turned civilian contractor named John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). The other is LaLinda (Tiffany Haddish), a matchmaker of sorts who seeks out gamblers in order to connect them with the financial backing that allows them to jump into the big time.

After some reluctance, William finds himself allowing both Cirk and La Linda in. William agrees to compete on the poker circuit at La Linda’s behest and brings Cirk along for the ride, all in a good faith effort to do some good. But as these relationships progress, William’s best-laid plans fall by the wayside, leading him down a shadowy and all-too-familiar path.

“The Card Counter” is a thoughtful and intense character study, one that explores what it means to reckon with a deeply troubling past. How fully are we defined by what we have done versus what we are doing and intend to do? And how can the internalization of those troubling actions impact the way in which we engage with the world? Can we actually move forward from atrocious deeds, or are we forever condemned by them?

Paul Schrader takes great delight in asking these questions and then refusing to give any kind of real answer. Oh, there are hints and moments, but for the most part, Schrader is content to show us this man as he is and let us judge us by his actions, both past and present … and he’s more than happy to take his time in doing so.

Honestly, Schrader’s willingness to linger feels like a deliberate pushback against the quick-cut stylings of more modern filmmakers. He holds shots for what feels like a beat too long, only to continue holding them until they come back around to feeling just right (I should probably note that there are some flashback scenes that are kind of a lot, intensity-wise, so be prepared). His pacing feels downright glacial compared to a lot of what we see on screen these days; he’s unafraid to spend as much time as he deems necessary. And it works.

Now, Schrader’s a good director, but he’s a GREAT screenwriter – he’s responsible for iconic scripts such as “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” among dozens of others – and that shows. He’s someone with a clear affection for writers in general; even here, we have multiple scenes of William scribbling in a journal, with a voiceover sharing his words as he writes them. That affinity lends this character in particular an extra degree of depth he might not otherwise have had.

Of course, the character would have been compelling no matter what; Oscar Isaac was playing him, after all. It’s a tour de force performance from Isaac, who is one of the best of his generation. He’s wonderful at evoking brokenness, no matter the context – he can be in a Coen Brothers movie or a “Star Wars” movie or what have you and still capture that hard-edged vulnerability. His piercing energy absolutely permeates every scene in which he appears (which is pretty much every scene).

Haddish is someone about whom I had some doubts, but she is showing herself to be a very capable dramatic performer. She’s very good here. Tye Sheridan doesn’t quite measure up – he has some moments, but for much of the time, his turn is lacking in nuance. Dafoe is only in a couple of scenes, but as usual, he makes the most of it. There are a couple of other recurring figures on the periphery, but for the most part, it’s the Oscar Isaac show – a show well worth watching.

“The Card Counter” is about gambling, but it isn’t only about gambling. And when it ventures away from that aspect of the story, it does bog down a bit. But only a bit – it’s all engaging as hell. And with Oscar Isaac at the center of the frame, exuding megawatts of dirtbag charisma, the rest of it doesn’t matter nearly as much.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 27 September 2021 11:16

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