‘The Card Counter’ Review: A Gambler’s Existential Solitaire

A man sits writing in a room, alone in his head, alone in the world. We hear his words, his thoughts, in a voice-over that’s a portal to his reality. It’s an intimate, unmodulated voice, and what he says is often unremarkable to the point of banality. Yet something troubles the man which, in turn, troubles you. He may be a good man gone wrong or a bad one gone right; the only thing certain is that he jumped out of the head of Paul Schrader.

The solitary man in a room is Schrader’s most indelible authorial signature, a defining image and idea in one. That figure most famously appears in his script for “Taxi Driver,” in which Travis Bickle, the cabby turned killer, pours out his rancid and bland thoughts; and he is the fulcrum of movies that Schrader has directed, notably “Light Sleeper” and “First Reformed.” The solitary man returns in “The Card Counter,” a haunting, moving story of spirit and flesh, sin and redemption, love and death about another lonely soul, William Tell, who, with pen to paper, grapples with his present and his unspeakable past.

A soldier turned professional card player, Tell — Oscar Isaac, a seductive force field — learned to count cards in prison, a talent he uses as he travels from casino to casino. Now, in anonymous, interchangeable gambling houses, he sits at blackjack and poker tables with strangers and sometimes other pros, counting, betting and often winning. He’s a disciplined player and a discreet gambler, winning just enough to avoid unwelcome attention. “The days move along with regularity, over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next,” to quote Travis Bickle. Every so often, Tell spins a roulette wheel.

It’s so good to be in Schrader’s world (and head) when the movie is as good as “The Card Counter.” One of the most enduring veterans of New Hollywood, Schrader is best known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese, whose name prominently embellishes this new movie’s credits. At the same time, Schrader has produced his own distinctive directorial corpus that’s informed by classical Hollywood and by classic international art cinema, traditions he can put into productive tension like few others. It’s always interesting to see what he’s up to, even when he doesn’t have a firm hand on his material, hasn’t found its perfect (or near-enough) shape and style — which he’s done here.

Tell is on a slow, methodical roll when the movie opens. As the story shuffles between casino scenes and images of him in prison, Tell sketches in his background: “As a boy, I was afraid of confined space.” Detention changed him, he says, omitting exactly how he went from the military to Leavenworth. What matters is the now, the routine, and how Tell scans the room, sizes up the competition and keeps his distance. His life has shrunk to the dimensions of a gambling table, his current battlefield. I’d bet good money that Schrader knows Clausewitz’s claim that “war most closely resembles a game of cards.”

As with other Schrader characters, Tell opens the door to his head through his narration, bringing you into the shadowy room in which he — like the rest of us locked in existential solitary — struggles. In Tell’s case it is a desperate and troubled repository of horrors, a hellscape of memories that emerge in visually distorted flashbacks to Abu Ghraib. There are echoes of other Schrader’s movies here, too, like the lyrics from a song featured in “Light Sleeper” that are tattooed on Tell’s back: “I trust my life to providence/I trust my soul to grace.” And, if you have never seen Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket,” Schrader’s supreme cinematic influence, this would be an excellent time to watch it.

Schrader seems altogether at ease in “The Card Counter,” and has found an ideal conduit in the protean, velvet-voiced Isaac, who joins avatars like Willem Dafoe in “Light Sleeper” and Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed.” As with those characters, Tell’s unease is first telegraphed by the careful restraint you hear in his sepulchral narration, in the even tones he uses to deliver both dramatic and quotidian information. His voice scarcely changes whether he’s describing how to count cards in blackjack or recalling his time in prison. It’s as if these moments in time were effectively indistinguishable, a point underscored early by images of Tell alone in a prison cell and in a motel room.

The anonymity of these modest rooms suits Tell, who remodels them by methodically removing the wall decorations and, in an eccentric flourish reminiscent of Christo, wrapping up the furnishings — bed, chairs, the whole lot — in the light cloth he travels with in a suitcase. There’s something monastic about the result, as if Tell were re-creating his prison cell. In doing so, he seems to be trying to excise the mess and distractions of the material world, to keep it in check and under control, a ritual that serves the character and also a director who remains a kind of minimalist even at his pulpiest.

The story comes together piecemeal when Tell meets, in succession, La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) and Cirk (Tye Sheridan), characters who pull him in different directions, radically affecting him and his trajectory. A manager of professional gamblers, La Linda offers Tell the chance to up his game by going on the poker circuit with lucrative financial backing. He demurs until some heavy complications arrive in the form of Cirk (pronounced Kirk), the teenage son of one of Tell’s military cohort. (A bit about the kid’s name gives the movie one of its periodic, productively unsettling laughs.) Both men had served under Maj. John Gordo (Dafoe, splendidly lurid and mustachioed), a gargoyle whose emergence affects Tell like an enemy invasion.

They’re memorable characters (a Schrader specialty), even when the performances waver, and bring alternately enigmatic and clarifying notes to the whole. Each helps shake Tell out of the stabilizing inertia — same cards, same faces, same garish rooms — that he’s sealed himself in, as if in a sarcophagus. Limits have worked for Tell, and they work for Schrader’s slow-burn storytelling. Time seems to stand still in casinos, with their absence of windows and clocks, an eternal present that suits Tell’s routine, his hushed conversations and his walkabouts through carpeted passages where he’s clocked by the gliding camera. It all flows and it keeps on flowing until the blood inevitably spills.

“The Card Counter” is being pushed as a thriller, a commercially expedient sales pitch. There are genre elements, as usual with Schrader, including moments of febrile tension and blasts of violence mingled in with the horror and the romance. Schrader likes playing with film form but he isn’t interested in conventional heroes and beats, and even when he hits familiar notes he does so with his own destabilizing rhythm and pressure. The only genre that he works in now is the one he’s been refining for decades, with its smooth and jagged edges, blessed and beautiful women, soulful meditations and eruptions of violence. Its voices and faces change, but the Paul Schrader Experience keeps raging.

The Card Counter
Rated R for scenes of torture and other violence. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. In theaters.

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