Oscar Isaac solemnly stars as William Tell, a card counting gambler who has recently been released from prison. He leads a routine, sterile life, consisting of little other than merely existing and gambling for a small profit. When the son of someone from his dark past, Cirk, played adpetly by Tye Sheridan, confronts him with a task to torture and murder Tell’s former military supervisor, John Gordo, in a small but memorable turn by the fantastic Willem Dafoe, Tell realizes he needs to intervene. To prevent Cirk from experiencing the horrors of his past, Tell enters a celebrity gambling tournament, with the winnings going towards digging Cirk out of his debt and getting him back into school. Helping him is La Linda, portrayed by Tiffany Haddish in an absolutely show-stealing performance, balancing the roles of compelling love interest, comic relief, and Tell’s manager with ease. In order to redeem Cirk, Tell is forced to remember and relive his traumatic past, going to extremes to attempt to prevent Cirk from going through with his plan.
The film implies heavily that Tell and his former military experience involves the “enhanced” torture techniques used by the U.S. military after 9/11. Tell’s character suffers from severe PTSD from the acts he was forced to commit. This program’s dissolution ultimately led to his imprisonment, taking the fall for his superiors, including John Gordo. The flashback scenes are jarring and uncomfortable without being glorifying or grotesque; Schrader still has a knack for stylistic, effective visual storytelling, rather than some of the lofty but flat dramas he has produced in recent years, while still retaining that sharp, biting edge that he has held throughout his entire career. The final confrontation with Gordo is also executed with panache as Tell’s past and present both collide as the morning comes with a simple fade. Additionally, the gambling scenes are excellent. They are well-crafted and fun to watch, with Isaac’s expressions and the revolving cast of competing players keeping things always interesting. The film’s coda also comes as a welcome surprise for Schrader, showing a glimmer of hope in the dark, unfair world that created Tell, choosing love and compassion over violence and torture.
The Card Counter is a triumph. With the last decade rife with studio fights, dead-on-arrival Nicolas Cage vehicles, and strange publicity for Schrader, this is exactly the kind of movie to remind the world of his capabilities as a world-class writer, stylistic director, and dark, mean social critic.
Score: ★★★★ / ★★★★★