As a crunchy guitar riff creeps onto the soundtrack and ghostly white block letter credits hover over the green surface of a poker table, The Card Counter instantly feels like an antihero thriller straight out of 1970s New Hollywood. Therefore, it’s no surprise when Paul Schrader is listed as the film’s writer and director, as he’s synonymous with the kind of flawed hero from that era. The film fills this archetype with new life, sending you out into the night shivering at the thought of the demons still lurking around him — and us all.
Schrader is known for wrestling with real-world issues through lone wolves hungry for justice. In his first big screenplay — for the 1976 classic, Taxi Driver — Schrader explored urban decay by riding along with a New York City cabbie. In his last big film, 2018’s First Reformed (which he also directed), Schrader conveyed the enormous weight of climate change through a minister fighting a crisis of faith.
The Card Counter is a bit different. It revolves around a past issue, the U.S. military’s torture of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison. And the film’s protagonist (Oscar Isaac) — one of the soldiers involved in the abuse — isn’t looking for redemption or a way to right wrongs. After getting out of prison, he goes by the phony name of William Tell and continues punishing himself by living an empty life as a gambler, driving across the country from casino to casino and staying in seedy motels along the way. He drapes his rooms in white sheets during each stay, never leaving a trace behind.
But during one casino trip, he makes a connection with gambling agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) and a young punk named Cirk (Tye Sheridan). The kid shares a tie to Abu Ghraib, which is best left as a surprise. Let’s just say that to calm him down, William takes Cirk under his wing and lets him tag along as he makes his way to the World Series of Poker with La Linda’s guidance.
An intoxicating air of dread looms over the film as the score by Robert Levon Been and Giancarlo Vulcano groans like a ghost of the past. Eerie breathing beneath the music makes it all the more haunting.
As the film meanders, it creates a moment-to-moment sense of discovery, like the giddy thrill you feel while rounding the corners of a haunted house. From colorful casinos to drab convention halls lined with booths selling law enforcement gear, the film’s world feels like a nightmarish wasteland of American excess. William even finds himself frequently facing off with a gambler who basically cosplays as “Mister U.S.A.,” garishly dressed in the colors of the American flag. Little does he know the atrocities committed in the name of his country.
As we honor the 20th anniversary of September 11th, now is a fitting time to reflect on the war crimes committed afterward as well. But in such divisive times, Schrader ultimately chooses to focus on love rather than hate. Beneath the film’s chilly surface beats a warm, bleeding heart. While romantic sparks fly between William and La Linda, we see him try to steer the bitter Cirk in a brighter direction.
Isaac delivers one of the best performances of his career, making us root for William even as he descends into another downward spiral. Haddish brings much-needed levity to the film as La Linda. Sheridan slowly reels viewers in with a quiet, implosive performance. And in a supporting role as an Abu Ghraib officer, Willem Dafoe is as effectively creepy as expected.
Even scarier than Dafoe’s character is the film’s frenetic tour of Abu Ghraib, which cinematographer Alexander Dynan takes us through with a fish-eye lens, accentuating the surreal nature of the facility.
The Card Counter leaves us haunted by the past but also hopeful for the future, which is a tough feat to pull off these days.