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The Card Counter

Writer/Director Paul Schrader continues the brilliant, dark renaissance he began with 2017’s “First Reformed” with his new film THE CARD COUNTER.

Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year) stars as Bill Tell, a quiet gambler moving from town to town like a nomad as he beats every casino’s house. He wins, but never enough to make a scene. He speaks, but never enough to let anyone penetrate his façade.

Schrader’s written a powerful narration for Tell, who slowly lets you inside his thoughts.

Tell silently checks into budget motel after motel, where he immediately takes down every mirror or picture, wraps every bit of furniture in white cloths that he ties in meticulous string knots. He writes in silence, accompanied only by his Scotch.

By chance one day, he sees a military surveillance convention at a hotel casino he’s playing in and wanders into a lecture by Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Tell stays a moment but is recognized by fellow attendee Cirk (Tye Sheridan).

For Tell, this is his worst nightmare.

Cirk has ties to Tell’s past as an interrogator in the hellhole of Gitmo. It’s a past that Tell tries every day to forget, but it invades his nightmares. Courtesy of Schrader’s swirling camera that soars through twisted scenes of torture, cruelty, and madness inside the prison, you’re immersed in Tell’s nightmares alongside him.

Schrader sets these loud, violent, bloody sequences up as the counterpoint to Tell’s everyday life. It’s effective on both sides of the equation.

As Tell and Cirk start to spend time together, La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) enters the picture, asking Tell to join her professional gambling stable.

Both La Linda and Cirk are intrusions into Tell’s carefully crafted world, and the moment Tell lets them in, you can feel Schrader getting ready to shatter Tell’s peace.


No one does that better than Schrader.

Tell sees some chance to redeem himself by saving Cirk from the path that he’s on.

Cirk’s path is forged by a violent childhood and revenge.

Haddish surprised me here, I’ve never seen her in anything but comedies and she’s very good in the film’s least defined role. She never pails next to Issac, and that’s no small feat. He’s reliably excellent.

Fellow Schrader fans will love the music score by newcomers Robert Levon Been and Giancarlo Vulcano. In moments, it’s a perfect and smile-inducing tribute to Georgio Moroder’s fantastic score for Schrader’s underappreciated 1982 thriller, “Cat People”.

This one’s not for everyone. It’s methodical in setting up Tell’s solitary life. It’s loaded with bursts of violence and cruelty, along with graphic nudity and adult language.

But Schrader seems to have a gift for pulling me into these tortured souls. Isaac’s Bill Tell is every bit the equal of Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller in “First Reformed”.

Both find themselves on a tortured path to finality, but Tell’s choices seem more obvious in the retrospect of the final moments.

THE CARD COUNTER is a patented Schrader dive to the dark side of human behavior and gets an A. But beware, there is nothing mainstream or fun being dealt here, just pain.

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