Writer-director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Affliction) helms this dark story about gambler William "Bill" Tell (Oscar Isaac), who's haunted by his past as a U.S. military interrogator trained by Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Bill meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of a fellow former soldier, and takes him under his wing as he embarks on a poker tour funded by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). (111 min.)
- Photo Courtesy Of Focus Features
- REVENGE OR REDEMPTION? William "Bill" Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a professional gambler haunted by his past, in auteur Paul Schrader's excellent slow-burning thriller, The Card Counter, screening exclusively at The Palm Theatre of SLO.
Glen Paul Schrader is the master explorer of the American psyche—whether it's the twisted morality of Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (1976) or the tormented past of small-congregation minister Rev. Ernst Toller of First Reformed (2017), Schrader finds his way into the minds of people broken by the ontological complexities of being part of the American culture. In the case of Bill Tell, he's a man looking for redemption. To calm his mind, he immerses himself in routine. Counting cards keeps him occupied, and he stays off the radar of the casinos by winning small and moving on. When La Linda sees him at a poker tournament, she suggests funding him for higher stakes games, and though at first not interested, he reluctantly agrees when he sees it as a way to help Cirk through his financial troubles, giving him a shot at a better life. As for Cirk, he's angry. Like too many soldiers, his father was destroyed by his service. He blames Gordo, but Bill wants to steer him away from thoughts of vengeance. This is a story about the internal lives of troubled people, and it may not be for all viewers, but I was riveted.
Anna I was totally surprised when I pulled up the Rotten Tomatoes page for this film and saw a dire audience score of 42 percent. While the critics' score is much higher, I just can't believe that so many people walked away from this film not liking it. It's dark and moody and not necessarily a whole lot of fun to watch, but the simmering heat of Isaac's performance here is so good. He clearly has a difficult relationship with not just his past, but with himself—with the person he has been and can be. He starts out in prison where his card skills are mastered, but the meat of this film is his time on the road with Cirk and La Linda. He doesn't like to play celebrity poker. Just like in the rest of his life, he prefers to be an anonymous blip on anyone's radar. But when it comes to helping Cirk out of what could be a deep, dark path into vengeance, Bill feels an obligation to steer the kid elsewhere and decides to try his hand at the World Poker circuit to make a big grab of cash relatively fast. I personally found this film riveting, from Isaac's enigmatic character to the odd yet somehow sweet relationship he has with Cirk and La Linda. There're a lot of great performances here. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you don't mind a bit of grit mixed into your films, this is definitely one to catch.
Glen Not only does Schrader get amazing and nuanced performances from his actors, he also delivers some masterful direction. I especially loved his hypnotic and mesmerizing use of light, from lens flare to blurred traffic lights to the neon glitz of casinos. There's a swirling kaleidoscope of light surrounding Bill, Cirk, and La Linda's lives. There're also some flashback scenes to Bill's time in the military that employ an extreme fisheye lens and long tracking shots that are disconcerting as hell! The film has three distinct lighting setups—the color-filled present, the puke-yellow military flashbacks, and the cold and colorless scenes in United States Penitentiary, Leavensworth, which Bill interestingly tries to re-create in his various motel rooms during his gambling travels. It's simply a beautifully crafted, albeit somewhat slow, film. It also has a conclusion that might not sit well with some viewers, but there's no denying its potency. Vibe-wise, the only film in recent memory that compares is Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives (2013). The Card Counter proves that Schrader still has plenty to express about the dark undercurrents of the American personality.
Anna You're spot on; that use of lighting is nothing short of masterful and very distinctly sets the mood of the different places and times we visit in the film. Schrader has a ton of skill at letting the quiet in a movie speak volumes, and while that can come off as slow sometimes, I also see it used as an asset to evoke feeling, emotion, fear—whatever it is he's trying to draw out from both his characters and audience. The stark differences in Bill's past surroundings and how he curates his life now speak of a man who knows that his ability to snap lies just below the surface, a man who's worried about feeling too alive and what it may do to him to confront that. The ending was unexpected, and I won't give anything away here, but the more I think about it a day later, the more settled I am with the filmmaker's choice. The characters are not particularly built for happy endings, and what we get makes sense in context. It's not a film that I'd run out and tell everyone to see, but I certainly will tell those I know who don't mind a challenging, dark piece of cinema that this is one to catch. Δ
Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.