“Loneliness has followed me my whole life, … There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man,” says Travis Bickle in a somber voice-over. Bickle commits awful acts in “Taxi Driver,” but even he finds a companion in God.
What happens if one can’t find God?
That’s the question being asked in “The Card Counter” — a minimalist character study about a brooding anti-hero, reminiscent of French auteur Robert Bresson’s films. Paul Schrader is undoubtedly the master of writing and directing this subgenre, helming the scripts of “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “First Reformed,” serving as director on the latter as well.
While not as earth-shattering as his previous directorial effort, Schrader’s “The Card Counter” is an engaging noir featuring a quiet yet powerful performance from Oscar Isaac.
Released after 10 years in jail, William Tell (Isaac) is a former military interrogator who plays cards on a seemingly never-ending casino trail. He’s confronted by Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of another military interrogator, with a dangerous proposition. William rebuffs his advances but asks Cirk to accompany him on the gambling journey.
The two men encounter La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a financial backer who presses William to join the high stakes games. Together, the trio hop casino to casino as William confronts his dark past, attempts to find redemption and possibly fall in love.
Redemption, revenge and reclamation are themes found in most of Schrader’s (“Light Sleeper,” “Bringing Out the Dead”) works. In this movie, the director explores expiation as William tries to correct his past wrongs by taking care of Cirk. Schrader does an excellent job by framing the movie as journal entries, making the audience an extra traveler on William’s self-reflective journey to salvation.
“The Card Counter” works as a fascinating companion piece to 2017’s “First Reformed,” in which Reverend Toller did nothing wrong but felt a crisis of faith. William, on the other hand, is the crisis, having a hand in the horrors at Abu Ghraib. The reverend takes atonement to a radical place, whereas William wants to deal with it in a personal way.
It’s an interesting dichotomy that asks the viewer — can we forgive these protagonists for their actions? Very few filmmakers have the ability to challenge moviegoers like that — Schrader has managed to do it in back-to-back movies. He makes the question even tougher to answer in this film with the charismatic and uber cool Isaac playing the protagonist.
Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Ex Machina”) is a top five actor in Hollywood right now. Very similar to Llewyn Davis, William is a quiet protagonist — someone who is haunted by his past, trying to get through this next phase of his life. He fits the Schrader lead mold perfectly, nailing the voiceover and being the ultimate DudeTM at counting cards.
His chemistry with Haddish (“Girls Trip,” “Night School”) is sizzling. Schrader adds more humor to this film than his others and Haddish is a great choice to deliver those lines. Her back and forth with Sheridan (“Ready Player One,” “Mud”) is always fun to watch.
“The Card Counter” is a winner until the final 25 minutes where it begins to lose its luck. The movie is a slow-burn for the most part but Schrader accelerates to an unsatisfying end. He would’ve been better off taking his time, finding something similar to the haunting ending of “First Reformed.”
Unlike William, La Linda’s and Major John Gordo’s (Willem Dafoe) characters are underbaked and deserve more screen time. Dafoe (“Spider-Man,” “The Lighthouse”) isn’t given much to do and it would’ve been nice to see him and Isaac in more frames together.
Ultimately, “The Card Counter” is a throwback to the great crime dramas of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In an industry filled with big tentpoles and existing IP, it’s refreshing to see original movies like this being made. It had the potential to be a royal flush but it’s really a full house — a strong hand, but not the best one.
“The Card Counter,” rated R, is now playing in theaters.