September 9, 2021

GENRE | Oscar Isaac Goes All In – 'The Card Counter'

"I like anonymous gambling."
Oscar Isaac Paul Schrader | The Card Counter
Focus Features / VVS Films
Veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader has made another brooding crime-based drama about a highly skilled but detached loner with a checkered past living on the margins of society. The Card Counter presents a straightforward yet mesmerizing character study about a recently released prisoner, a quietly tortured but soulful Oscar Isaac, playing low-level card games to pass the time.

Schrader crafts a methodically told story through voiceover narration, plain exposition, and mundane scenes of predictable routine. This is how Isaac's card shark Bill spends his days counting cards for meager earnings at small casinos on the outskirts of town before entering the professional poker circuit. As we see Isaac go about lazily playing games, we're soon introduced to the surprising real story revolving around criminal soldiers and military torture lifted from the real-life Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Co-starring Tiffany Haddish as Bill's alluring financial backer, the unlikely pairing makes for a quietly sultry coupling. Haddish oozes more of her natural charm in a restrained, wryly comic performance that adds some much-needed star power and excitement to the slow burn card-playing drama. Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe both show up as key players in Bill's backstory that mirror his past and future.

Oscar Isaac Tiffany Haddish Paul Schrader | The Card Counter

Schrader interrogates our conceptions of service and solitary life through the framework of poker. Bill replaces the internal torture of his past through the mundanity of card playing. The bare film cleverly summarizes the cycle of incarceration through its sense of repetition and routine. It resists easy temptations of exploiting its subject matter for any cheap thrills.

The Card Counter is about the nature of gambling at its essence through and through. Isaac's tempered but captivating performance grounds the detached film with an underlying appeal to get us through the intentionally repetitive cinematic flourishes. Schrader knows exactly what he's doing by using card games to exemplify internal yet violent conflict.

The Card Counter screens at The Park Theatre.

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