Producers: Braxton Pope, Lauren Mann and David Wulf Director: Paul Schrader Screenplay: Paul Schrader Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe, Alexander Babara, Bobby C. King, Kat Baker and Bryan Truong Distributor: Focus Features
The protagonist of Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter,” a professional blackjack and poker player who calls himself William Tell (Oscar Isaac), is a creature of very peculiar habits. With a smoothed-back haircut and an intense gaze that makes him look like a solemn George Clooney, he always favors the same outfit—dark slacks, shirt and tie, with sport coat—and covers every item of furniture in his motel rooms with tied-down white linen before bedding down, keeping the surfaces free of unsightly taint—or personality.
There’s an obsessive precision to the fastidious man that mirrors the meticulous, almost sterile technique of the writer-director of this strange, slow-burning, quietly unsettling character study/thriller that blends surrealistic touches into what on the surface seems a flatly ordinary style (the cinematography is by Alexander Dynan). The result upends genre expectations in a chilling fashion that will antagonize many viewers while brilliantly expressing Schrader’s dark vision of the constant potential for violence in human affairs and the painful route to redemption after it’s been unleashed.
Tell opens the film with narration, explaining how he learned the craft of card counting while serving a stint in a military prison; he further explains that he appreciated the orderliness and predictability that incarceration provided. Now he travels the gambling circuit, making sure to limit his winnings so as not to attract the attention of the casino owners who do not act kindly toward those who use his skills, as he explains to La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). She invites him to join the stable of gamblers she runs, staking them with funds from investors who will then share the profits. He refuses, preferring to retain his independence.
During a stop at a hotel hosting a conference of security experts, he encounters two people who change his plans. One is Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), who is delivering a talk on facial recognition software. The other is a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who asks Tell to talk with him privately. He suggests that they join forces to take revenge on Gordo, who as a consultant to the U.S. military in Iraq was responsible for bringing the horrendous “enhanced interrogation” techniques to the prison at Abu Ghraib that, when they were revealed in 2004, caused a major scandal and legal proceedings against those deemed responsible.
Tell, we learn, was one of the soldiers convicted and imprisoned for his role in the torture, and Cirk’s father, a colleague of his, was ruined and committed suicide. The higher-ups, including Gordo, naturally escaped unscathed and have prospered ever since.
The flashbacks to Abu Ghraib shock not only because of the brutality they unflinchingly depict, but by reason of their visual style. Schrader and Dynan present the scenes in a distorted form reminiscent of images in fun-house mirrors, and add to the sense of dislocation with long tracking shots that take us from one hideous moment to another. The effect is particularly jarring given the sedate, impassive tone they and editor Benjamin Rodriguez, Jr., as well as the lean score by Robert Levon Been and Giancarlo Vulcano, maintain elsewhere.
The meeting with Cirk impels Tell to change his plans. He accepts La Linda’s offer and invites Cirk to join him on his travels from casino to casino, where he becomes one of the poker players taking aim at the reigning champion, a preening guy dressed in red, white and blue who calls himself Mr. America (Alexander Babara) and is accompanied by an entourage who cheer his every triumph. While retaining his preternatural composure, Tell explains that his goal is to accumulate a substantial bankroll.
The question is what the cash might be used for. Schrader nudges us with the idea that it’s intended to pay for the revenge scenario Cirk has proposed, but as the young man becomes antsier about the delay, Tell’s real motive is revealed, and as is usual in Schrader’s work, it involves a doomed attempt at redemption. A sudden twist destroys the apparent equilibrium and violence follows, but unlike in the Abu Ghraib sequences, it’s presented in muted, indirect form.
The visual side of “The Card Counter”—including Ashley Fenton’s production design and Lisa Madonna’s costumes—is impeccably crafted, and the cast fits ably into Schrader’s conception. Isaac is the linchpin, maintaining Tell’s studied impassivity while allowing the turbulence beneath the surface to emerge under distress. Dafoe, in what amounts to a cameo, provides his customary cunning, and Sheridan conveys a naïve young man’s impatience, while Haddish, setting aside the raucous comic shenanigans she’s famous for, makes an affably sultry prospective romantic interest for Tell.
“The Card Counter” is, ostensibly at least, more concerned with explaining the rules of gambling than most other pictures of its kind, but that turns out to be an example of Schrader’s sleight of hand. He doesn’t bother with showing us what hand wins over another, and at the end even leaves the culminating match up in the air. It’s the emotional connections among the characters that constitute the real game being played here, and where it leads proves both unexpected and weirdly inevitable.