William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a professional gambler, who moves from casino to casino and makes his living from his winnings and lives anonymously. When confronted by the son of a former colleague (Tye Sheridan) with a plan for revenge against a man (Willem Dafoe) who wronged them both, he begins to examine his violent past and the moral weight of what he's done...
Paul Schrader's work, from 'Taxi Driver' to 'First Reformed', has examined the darkness in humanity, and the moral complexities of violence as it intersects with our world. In 'First Reformed', it's about how humanity can continue to ravage the planet and still think it deserves to exist. In 'The Card Counter', the field of vision is much more narrow, but the nuance and the weight is still there. Here, Paul Schrader's script asks how long someone has to atone for something when others walk free of guilt. As with much of his filmography, Schrader is going over themes and ideas that have haunted and plagued him for years. Even when the answers prove to be elusive, the examination is still a worthy process.
'The Card Counter', from its opening credits, feels like an old-school drama-thriller with a few flourishes of neo-noir. There's the synthy soundtrack from Robert Levon Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. There's the gawdy neon of the casinos. Gambling and card-counting, they're all there, but they merely exist in this world to inform and dictate how the characters connect. Oscar Isaac's titular character could easily be a wandering monk, moving from place to place, plying his trade with serene composure, and leaving without a sound. Yet, when he happens across both Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe, the calm and collected exterior is placed in context. It's not all just for pretence or for his own harmony. It's a suit of armour he's placed over himself to protect from the true horrors of his past, and the weight that he carries with him.
Isaac is able to play it all with impeccable precision. So much of the movie is made up of quiet, understated moments, but when the big blow-up scenes happen, he's utterly commanding. The intensity that Isaac brings to the screen is doled out in little moments, but there's one scene with Tye Sheridan that stands out as terrifying, almost to the point where you'd believe Tye Sheridan really did fear for himself. Willem Dafoe's character is largely absent, only appearing here and there in flashbacks and as the crux of the story, but again, when he's used, he's used beautifully. It's the same with Tiffany Hadish, who plays Isaac's business manager and eventual lover. Schrader's script and direction make the best possible use of each actor in a way that few writer / directors are able to.
Even if they're only in it for a short while, and if they're only given a few lines, nothing is wasted. There isn't an ounce of fat or a moment lost to wastefulness in 'The Card Counter'. Much like the hotel rooms that Oscar Isaac's character inhabits, there is no room for disorder or chaos. Even the half-dead, personality-less casinos that he walks through inform the moral emptiness that exists in 'The Card Counter'. Yet, in comparison to 'First Reformed', it's not quite as pessimistic. The two movies share deep connections and should be viewed as companion pieces, but 'The Card Counter' is far more measured than 'First Reformed', and ultimately its conclusion is more disturbing.
Precise and cool, 'The Card Counter' offers up one of Oscar Isaac's best on-screen performances to date and reminds us how effective Paul Schrader is at exploring the corners of the human mind that we neglect for good reason.