William (Oscar Isaac) takes a methodical approach to blackjack and poker in “The Card Counter.” | Focus Features
Director Paul Schrader’s brilliant noir expertly captures the intensity of its antihero and the sometimes exciting, sometimes depressing vibe of a casino.
Whether it’s Fast Eddie Felson in “The Hustler,” Eric “The Kid” Stoner in “The Cincinnati Kid,” Bill and Charlie in “California Split,” Axel Freed in “The Gambler” or Mike McDermott and Lester “Worm” Murphy in “Rounders,” the best antiheroes in the best movies about gambling almost always have one thing in common:
They’re their own worst enemies. More often than not, they don’t know when to stop, and that’s when the stuff hits the fan.
In writer-director Paul Schrader’s brilliant and searing and stunning American noir “The Card Counter,” Oscar Isaac’s William is the antithesis of those antiheroes. William makes his living playing blackjack and poker, but he wouldn’t even call himself a gambler. He doesn’t have the self-destructive impulses of an Axel Freed or a Lester Murphy, or the ego of a Fast Eddie or the Cincinnati Kid; in fact, William prefers to stay off the grid and play for relatively low stakes. At the poker table, he relies on his methodical approach and his uncanny ability to read his opponents. As for blackjack, William’s skills at card counting — keeping track of the number of face cards and low cards in the deck, with points assigned to various cards — actually give him a mathematical edge against the house.
Oscar Isaac delivers a simmering, intense, tightly controlled performance as William Tell (a pseudonym playing off both the folk legend and the “tells” given off by weaker poker players), who provides brooding narration reminiscent of Travis Bickle in the Schrader-penned “Taxi Driver.” We learn Tell was in Leavenworth for 8 ½ years, where he grew accustomed to the routine, educated himself by reading and learned how to master the art of counting cards. These days, William drives from town to town, playing poker and blackjack in mid-sized casinos in the Midwest and the South and along the East Coast, always wearing his hair slicked back, always clad in a neat, gray-and-black ensemble — and always staying in cheap motel rooms where he meticulously covers the furniture, the lamps, everything, in white cloth.
He’s a minimalist loner who engages in these routines in a not-always-successful effort to drown out the demons haunting his dreams and his flashbacks to the hellish time he spent as one of the soldiers who engaged in the brutal and sadistic torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. (Schrader films these scenes with a fish-eye tactic and unblinking visuals that chillingly capture the horror of it all.) These are the crimes that resulted in William’s long stint in prison.
There’s always a convention at a casino/hotel, and that’s how William comes to drop in on a security seminar hosted by one Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), a former military man turned civilian contractor who was in charge of the torture interrogation techniques in Abu Ghraib but escaped prosecution. William ducks out before Gordo spots him, but not before he’s accosted by a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan), whose father was in the same unit as William and was so damaged by his experiences that he killed himself. Tye has a half-baked plan to kidnap Gordo and torture and kill him; wouldn’t William like a piece of that?
William has another idea. He’ll take Cirk on the road with him and try to win enough money to pay off Cirk’s college debts and persuade this damaged kid to abandon his plan and make something of himself. (As we’ve seen in so many films written and/or directed by Schrader, including “First Reformed,” themes of redemption and forgiveness run deep here.) This means William will have to step up his game and play for higher stakes, so he teams up with Tiffany Haddish’s La Linda, who specializes in connecting anonymous, wealthy backers with talented poker players.
Tiffany Haddish co-stars as La Linda, who finds wealthy backers for poker players.
William, La Linda and Cirk become an ad hoc family of sorts, with William trying to teach Cirk life lessons while William and La Linda tentatively explore a possible romance. (In one of the most beautiful scenes in any film this year, La Linda takes William to the illuminated Missouri Botanical Garden and, for a fleeting moment, he sees there’s more to life than the interiors of casinos and motel rooms.)
With spectacularly haunting original songs by Robert Levon Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club accompanying the journey, Schrader expertly captures the equal parts exciting and depressing worlds of casinos, where the slots are always jangling and the bar is always open — and when the World Series of Poker comes to town, an entire ballroom is filled with tables where players vie for winnings that go deep into six figures. Yet this is a poker movie where we really don’t see the details of hand as they’re played out, a la “Rounders.” William has a disdain for “celebrity poker,” as he calls it; he sees the game as a means to save Cirk and maybe find some inner peace for himself. This leads to a final act both shocking and perhaps inevitable, in one of the best films of the year.