Tilt

The Card Counter

by Hope Madden

The damaged man seeking redemption — it may be the most cinematic concept, or certainly among the most frequently conjured by filmmakers. When Paul Schrader is on his game, no one tells this story better.

Schrader’s game in The Card Counter is poker, mainly. But if he tells the redemption story differently than others, you should see what he does with a gambling picture.

Oscar Isaac and his enviable hair play William Tell, gambler. Where this film differs from others treading this territory is that, rather than being a man of a somewhat self-destructive bent drawn to the adrenaline, anxiety and thrill of the lifestyle, William is comforted by its mundane routine. When you play the way William plays, gambling is tidy. It is clean. It is predictable.

William learned to count cards — and to appreciate routine — in prison.

His routine is shaken up, as routines must be, by two people. La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) wants to find William a financial backer, put him on a circuit, see him win big. Cirk “with a C” (Tye Sheridan) wants more from him.

The precision and power in Schrader’s writing come as no surprise, but as a director, he wields images with more unique impact here. There are three different worlds in The Card Counter: prison, casinos, haunted past. Each has its own color scheme, style and mood. The haunted past takes on a nightmarish look via fisheye lens, creating a landscape that’s part first-person shooter, part hell.

Schrader’s on point with visual storytelling throughout, even though he relies on voiceover narration from the opening shot. Voiceover narration is rarely done well. It’s often, perhaps usually, a narrative cheat, a lazy device used to tell us something a stronger writer could convey visually. Not when Schrader does it. We learned that in 1976 when he wrote Taxi Driver, and he proves it again here.

It helps that Isaac is a profound talent and essentially flawless in this role. He is the essential Schrader protagonist, a man desperate for relief from an inner torment through repression, redemption or obliteration.

It’s at least the 4th performance of Isaac’s career worthy of Oscar’s attention, which means the Academy will probably deny that recognition again. But you shouldn’t. You should go see The Card Counter.

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