Oscar Isaac Plays a Deft Hand in Paul Schrader’s Immersive ‘The Card Counter’

Haunted men abound in the worlds of Paul Schrader. The legendary writer-director has dramatized the plight of the conscience and journeys of redemption like no other filmmaker. Famously raised a Calvinist who found escape and freedom through the sensuous thrills of cinema, Schrader’s work can reach the crescendo of a secular religious experience. His latest is “The Card Counter,” an immersive drama that confirms we might be in the midst of a Schrader renaissance. It follows on the heels of 2018’s Oscar-nominated and brilliant “First Reformed,” where after a few quirky experiments and flops, Schrader returned to his roots with fierce intensity. In “The Card Counter” Oscar Isaac plays a poker player who is also in essence a refugee of the early 21st century, seeking release through a set routine, to drown out his war memories.

We only know him as William “Will” Tell (Isaac). He travels from casino to casino, expertly playing and collecting wins that never get obscenely high. It is part of his strategy. Play low, lose small. In the evenings he sits in his hotel room, draping the chairs and lamps, then writes his thoughts in a notebook. We catch a glimpse of a philosophical tattoo across his back. Will’s dreams constantly return to his days as a soldier during the Iraq war, when he became an interrogator at Abu Ghraib and engaged in the torture and brutal interrogation of prisoners. His poker skills catch the eye of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a poker tour bankroll rep who offers Will the chance to get sponsorship. He’s hesitant because he likes avoiding too much attention. By chance at one of the hotel-casinos where he’s playing, Will sees a private security presentation by a man named Gordo (Willem Dafoe), who was the contractor leading the nightmarish proceedings in Iraq. At the same event, Will is approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of another soldier who served with Will and who couldn’t take the shame and aftermath of Abu Ghraib, committing suicide. Cirk offers Will the chance to kidnap Gordo, who never answered for what happened, and torture him.

“The Card Counter” returns to a classic Schrader touch of embarking on a series of travels with a character that become metaphors for an internal journey. The most famous example is his screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle driving a taxi through what his descending mind perceives to be a decaying New York City. Schrader also wrote Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead,” an underrated film about a burned out ambulance driver (Nicolas Cage) endlessly being forced to drive through NYC streets that evoke Dante’s Inferno. In this new film Scorsese is credited as a producer. “The Card Counter” is closer to 1992’s “Light Sleeper,” where Schrader directed Willem Dafoe as a contemplative drug dealer wandering wet New York streets, regretful of having lost his wife because of his lifestyle. A direct link between both films is in the music. Robert Levon Been, formerly of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, performs atmospheric songs that give “The Card Counter” a dreamlike rhythm. Been’s father, Michael Been, did the same for “Light Sleeper.” But there is a harder edge to “Card Counter,” because Will Tell may wander through different, plush hotels and casinos, but inside he can’t let go of the horrors of war. Poker gives him a focus, a reason to keep living. It’s the opposite of Ethan Hawke’s Protestant minister in “First Reformed,” whose slipping faith is restored by a radical reawakening to the truth about the coming ecological cataclysm. Will finds a calling through becoming a craftsman. Early in the film we see him in prison discovering books, and in the casinos he analyzes the order of cards, or his opponents, with scientific precision. 

A deeper resonance in the screenplay is how Will and Cirk (still pronounced “Kirk”) are the human toll of their nation’s recent history. We invaded Iraq, left ruins and scorched earth behind, but also scorched minds wandering the country. Gordo the torturer made his name in the ‘80s training the Contras and U.S.-backed death squads in Central America. Oscar Isaac’s performance is pure, tense control. He is orderly and precise, yet hiding real violence inside. You could call it PTSD, but evoked with a masterful sense of subtlety. Cirk thirsts for revenge which could be tempting for Will, who in flashbacks we see enduring Gordo’s deranged attitude, but the former soldier is aware this kid is naïve and doesn’t know what real violence entails. Tye Sheridan has the necessary combination of a young man anxious but capable of friendly tenderness. Tiffany Haddish offers both men a more grounded center with her sober, welcoming personality. She wants to build a strong business and has had enough bad experiences with previous men to not let them wander around her head. The acting is so strong Schrader never has to take the actors out of shadowy gaming rooms and poker tables, only taking a few breaks to spend time with Will in the various hotels that become his lairs. 

One can instantly try and predict Schrader’s every move, because we have seen this kind of story play out in standard action thrillers. There are no recycled twists, however. “The Card Counter” is a real film about people, not violence. Will accepts La Linda’s offer and goes on a poker tour to collect bigger winnings, inviting Cirk to come along for the ride. It’s a chance for the wandering soldier to redeem himself by attempting to guide the kid towards something better than a dangerous scheme. Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan, who provided the sharp, precise compositions of “First Reformed,” also use a patient visual style that allows us to observe what the characters think, despair and talk. Like Ingmar Bergman, Schrader likes to read the human face for what it has to say in its expressions. Schrader isn’t beyond humor and romance. Repetitive comic relief happens with an oddball player who is Ukrainian, but is always decked in American flag gear, with his fanboys chanting “USA! USA!” whenever he plays. Of course Will would love to fillet the clown. Emotionally, an obvious attraction grows between La Linda and Will, without melodrama but as an organic development between two people inhabiting the same kind of world. 

As a director Schrader has expressed grand ideas with visual exuberance as in his 1985 masterpiece “Mishima,” about the Japanese author who formed his own private army and performed seppuku after a failed coup attempt. Yet some of his best films are about powerful inner drives, like “American Gigolo,” where Richard Gere plays a male prostitute trapped in a murder mystery, but the real theme is loneliness. Just when all seems redemptive and calm for Will, things take a violent turn and the soldier, the torturer, is forced to return. Schrader’s characters inhabit a world of tenderness and brutality. For every act of kindness there are twisted, dangerous impulses. The real monster in this story is Gordo, and even bigger than him is the system that allowed Abu Ghraib to happen. A final shot has a powerful eloquence between Will and La Linda that repeats a Schrader motif about genuine love, stripped of Hollywood fantasy, being the only real shield in a mad world. It may seem too idealistic in our detached times, but that’s also what makes Schrader a great artist. He isn’t afraid of mixing big emotions with upfront statements. All he needs are good actors and a few poker tables to make one of the year’s best films. 

The Card Counter” releases Sept. 10 in select theaters.