Review: Paul Schrader's 'The Card Counter' is a Revelatory and Intensely Constructed Thriller

by Greg Vellante

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 14, 2021

'The Card Counter'
'The Card Counter'  (Source:Focus Features)

Similar to a deck of cards, you never quite know what hand you're going to be dealt during Paul Schrader's evocative and intensely constructed thriller, "The Card Counter." That is, of course, unless you're a card counter yourself — or, in this case, someone familiar with the beats and tropes of Schrader's filmography. But even then, despite the frequent thematic and stylistic familiarities present throughout Schrader's newest work, there's still always something unexpected to be uncovered.

"The Card Counter" continues Schrader's career-long exploration of men coming to terms with their demons, seen most notably in his collaborations with Martin Scorsese (who serves as an executive producer here) and his own solo efforts, from "Taxi Driver" to "Raging Bull" to "First Reformed." Throughout much of "The Card Counter," one can sense Schrader settling into his anticipated methods of storytelling — voiceover narration as its protagonist writes in a composition notebook, jarring tonal shifts, aesthetically amplified moments of psychological penetration — but there's enough new mixed in with the familiar that the filmmaker's latest effort hardly feels redundant. At times, it's quite the contrary, embodying something that's at once revelatory and haunting.

The film follows William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a gambler whose knack for blackjack and card counting is immediately apparent as he painstakingly details his gameplay for the viewer, using mathematic jargon (that, admittedly, went over my head). And while these scenes at the blackjack table are undeniably cool and confident, they're mere setup for the far more unnerving subject matter to come.

I went into "The Card Counter" fairly blind, which served as both a benefit and a burden for my experience. It was beneficial because I didn't know what to expect, yet bothersome because the surprises in store were immensely discomforting. From the moment Schrader slowly zooms into his protagonist's closed eyelids in REM and rapidly cuts to one of the most unsettlingly constructed flashback sequences I've ever witnessed, the film takes a disconcerting turn that will stir and provoke and linger long after leaving the theater.

Without revealing too much of the film's dark detours, it's worth noting that Tell's past as a serviceman comes heavily into play, with Schrader sharply critiquing American militarism and the disturbing underbelly of obedient, bellicose inhumanity that ran rampant in places such as Abu Ghraib. The fact that this film was released in theaters during the weekend of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 feels hardly like coincidence, and the commentary Schrader creates here (both directly and indirectly) is some of his most pointed to date. "The Card Counter" is a lesser but worthy companion to Schrader's 2017 masterwork "First Reformed," which tackled the horrors of climate change in ways that no other visual storyteller has even touched.

Isaac, in short, is phenomenal, bringing to screen a brooding and brilliantly nuanced performance that hits you right where it hurts, exactly at the right moments. Supporting players like Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan may be unfairly accused of seeming stilted in their roles, but it feels fitting for the characters and not unfamiliar when considering Schrader's sensibilities.

There are some moments of sloppiness within the film, but overall this is a striking effort that makes the most of its darkness while never sacrificing its own beacons of light. From a striking sequence of monumental light work (that cinematographer Alexander Dynan photographs beautifully) to a lingering final shot that runs through the entirety of the credits, "The Card Counter" finds hope within the despair.