A Deep-Dive Film Review of “The Card Counter”

A Deep-Dive Film Review of “The Card Counter”

“The Card Counter,” Paul Schrader’s latest film as writer and director, once again explores the mind of a tormented man in search of redemption. This time around, it’s William Tell (Oscar Isaac). A former military interrogator turned gambler, Tell, like many of Schrader’s brooding, violent anti-heroes, has had his soul shattered by his involvement in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. However, he is unlike most of them in other ways: Quiet and tightly wound, he keeps his anguish contained within a structured life of gambling, writing in a journal, and living frugally out of motels. When young Cirk (Tye Sheridan) comes to him looking for revenge against Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the sadistic officer who oversaw interrogations, Tell tries to talk him out of self-destruction. Despite himself, he gets involved with Cirk’s crusade. Tiffany Haddish plays La Linda, a gambling financier whose cryptic portrayal suggests she can see through Tell’s calm exterior.

Fascinating Control and Restraint

Schrader, who made “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” has a knack for diving deep into the psyche of his main characters. “The Card Counter” follows a similar slow-burn structure that we’ve seen before in his movies. 

We spend time in Tell’s world, watching him repeatedly do the same tasks. Mundane moments are given significance by their slow, intense pace — brushing teeth, tying shoes, and keeping records in a notebook. This introduction shows us that this man has made himself into a machine so he doesn’t have to feel anything.

Stillness is the key to Oscar Isaac’s mesmerizing performance. His portrayal of Tell isn’t ranting like Travis Bickle; he’s tightly coiled, with emotions leaking out only through his eyes or an occasional shake of the hands. Even gambling scenes take on a Zen-like quality as Tell calmly plays the odds with his head, not trying to win but to stay in charge.

In one scene, Tell gives Cirk some gambling advice: set loss limits and consider each play an isolated probability. This almost clinical way of looking at things seems to represent how regimented Tell is internally — seeking order while everything else falls apart.

Powerful Cinematics That Convey Major Themes

In “First Reformed” by Schrader, the main character uses routine and ritual to find inner peace. However, Tell loses control when he is presented with an opportunity for violence. This scene is the most intense part of the movie, and it was shot in one take where Tell changes his mind about revenge as he cannot breathe anymore. This chaos replaces order since his breath gets shallower while abandoning reality. 

There is an intentional lack of visual warmth throughout “The Card Counter.” Instead, everything has a cold, desaturated gradient to show that Tell struggles to relate to people or feel vibrant and alive. Almost everything Tell does in this film has an underlying tone of darkness. This devoid-of-color experience is reflected in his motels and usually colorful and exciting settings like the casino, where he plays games similar to online slots. Contrasted with an activity often associated with a fun time, the dim, colorless style feels oddly out of place, subverting the audience’s expectations. Despite vastly different settings, the atmosphere never changes, and there is consistency in the dark appearance of things, creating an eeriness like that often found in monastic settings.

Slow Burn Over Spectacle

Some may find the film’s pacing and spartan visuals challenging. It lacks the propulsive momentum and cathartic violence of Schrader’s earlier films like “Taxi Driver.” But for viewers willing to surrender to Schrader’s stark poetic rhythm, it offers a mesmerizing character study and a haunting examination of violence, guilt, and moral responsibility.

Schrader takes his time, allowing scenes to unfold and breathe. But therein lies the hypnotic pull — we are drawn into Tell’s rituals, his calibrated existence until the tension becomes unbearable. The slow burn makes the eventual chaos all the more shattering.  

A Master Returns to Familiar Themes With Signature Artistry

Schrader’s script dives into weighty topics — guilt, revenge, and redemption – that he injects with his typical moral ambiguity. Tell tries to save Cirk from going down the same path as himself, only to be pulled back into violence again, this time against his own will. The film is not interested in resolving things for us; it leaves these matters open-ended and lets us decide if Tell achieves any form of redemption or should have been offered any in the first place.

Schrader proves he still has the power to hold an audience through sheer force of artistic vision. In “The Card Counter,” he uses his signature style to peel back the layers of a deeply conflicted man. It may not surpass the visceral power of his earlier films, but it sees a master returning to familiar themes with maturity and nuance. Driven by Isaac’s haunting performance, it’s a hypnotic and morally complex character study that lingers long in the mind.

Riveting Viewing for Thoughtful Audiences 

For Schrader fans or lovers of thoughtful, independent film, “The Card Counter” offers a profoundly moving experience. With precise visual and thematic execution, Schrader immerses us in the world of a man defined by restraint, ritual, and redemption. It’s a riveting character study and a haunting meditation on violence from a master returning to familiar territory. The Card Counter requires patience but rewards the thoughtful viewer with a mesmerizing descent into a tortured psyche. Carried by Isaac’s precisely calibrated performance, Schrader returns to often-explored themes of guilt and salvation with maturity and nuance. It offers a riveting and morally complex character study for those attuned to Schrader’s frequency.