Paul Schrader is on a tear right now. And “The Card Counter,” which is now only available in cinemas, is a captivating film with a profound core of human understanding. The picture finds Schrader, 75, at the top of his artistic game as he explores the dizzying area between guilt and salvation, after 2018’s masterpiece “First Reformed.”
In the same way that Schrader’s script for “Taxi Driver” was about cabs as a means to a goal, “The Card Counter” is about cards. Oscar Isaac, who played heroic pilot Poe Dameron in the “Star Wars” trilogy, plays a gambler who names himself William Tell, after the 14th-century crossbow ace who blasted apples from heads and dictators off thrones.
William’s main adversary is himself. After being court-martialed for his part as a US military interrogator found guilty of human rights crimes at Abu Ghraib, he learned card counting during a long jail sentence at Leavenworth. William is kept awake at night by terrifying images of torture.
William uses cards to organize his life, which he does in a pathological way as he visits casinos in ironed shirts and tied ties and checks into hotel rooms whose furniture he covers in sheets and carries in his baggage with obsessive-compulsive attention to detail.
Tiffany Haddish plays La Linda, a gambling agent who introduces sensual, passionate anarchy into William’s regimented half-life. It’s a joy to witness this fiery firecracker moderate her comedic rhythms in order to nail a serious part that awakens William to emotions he’s suppressed for a long time.
La Linda tries to recruit William for a poker tournament, mistaking his OCD for a gambler’s calm. A large triumph, on the other hand, is uninteresting. Cirk (pronounced Kirk) is a youngster who Tells mentors, played by Tye Sheridan. For a brief moment, Schrader imbues his film with the kinetic intensity of Paul Newman teaching Tom Cruise how to play billiards in “The Color of Money.”
Cirk has a different plan in mind. Cirk recognizes Major John Gordo (a terrifying, terrific Willem Dafoe) from the unit in which his father and William served at a hotel meeting for correctional officials. Cirk holds Gordo responsible for his father’s suicide and wants William to join him in exacting vengeance.
Retaliation would be the simple end-all in a lesser film. Schrader, on the other hand, does not create inferior films. Though William’s strange Iraq nightmares echo the loudness, stench, and brutality detailed in his diaries, it is his attempt to comfort Cirk’s tortured spirit that may lead to redemption.
We, film reviewers, love to wax lyrical about Schrader’s rigorous Calvinist upbringing, the Old Testament God who appears in his films, and the transcendental manner of Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest,” which influenced his own austere approach.
But what if “The Card Counter” is your first Schrader experience? Don’t be afraid; simply let the film’s moral demands penetrate your mind and emotions. Schrader is a world-class director whose work is as fun as it is serious, and you don’t need a degree in cinema to see that.
“The Card Counter,” a mesmerizing and disturbing film about a man of conscience grappling with his guilt about surviving in a godless, contemporary society, has it everything. Schrader’s hazardous, maybe redemptive game of chance is tinged with hope. Make your wagers.