The Card Counter is a strange comfort. Paul Schrader’s latest meditation on the moral dilemma one man faces within a society that is amoral at best and evil at worst covers little new ground among the cinema of male loners trying and failing to restrain the violence within themselves. It might be among the best of them, though, for one reason alone: Oscar Isaac.
The IFJA’s newly minted Best Actor for 2021, Isaac is one of the few performers who can make anything better just by being there. (OK, almost anything. Let’s just not talk about the stinkers even he couldn’t save.) The Card Counter works best as a showcase for Isaac, with material from Schrader tailor-made to elicit one of the year’s greatest performances. Isaac’s command over his craft comes through as much as in things he does as in things he leaves undone, things said and unsaid. It is not a performance to be missed.
The Card Counter follows William Tell (Isaac), an itinerant card player who goes from city to city, casino to casino, and, yes, counts cards — but not to hit the jackpot. He sticks to modest goals and invisible anonymity, gambling for neither money nor fame. This empty, liminal existence on the fringes of the fringes of society is not so much atonement for the unjustifiable crimes of his past but rather an effort to leave virtually no impact on the people he meets. No harm but no good, either. Tell is a neutral nonentity moving through the world in an aimless, endless routine. He believes this is all he deserves.
Complete neutrality is impossible, though, and ghosts from Tell’s past in the form of shaggy, vengeful Cirk Baufort (Tye Sheridan) and the slick but tired Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) lay before him two diverging paths for his future. For the sake of the younger man haunted by his own overlapping ghosts, Tell alters his solitary existence with the help of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a likeminded player who runs a stable of poker players for wealthy investors, to start down the path that could potentially do Cirk the most good. But Tell is a card counter, and for a moment he forgets what all card counters know: You can play the game and get ahead, but it won’t matter in the end. The House always wins.
Isaac infuses delicate futility into Schrader’s modern treatise on Stoicism. Tell is ostensibly nothing like Marcus Aurelius, noted Stoic and perhaps the one “good” Roman emperor (good, of course, being extremely relative) whose Meditations he reads while incarcerated. Like Aurelius, though, Tell reflects on his life and writes about it for no one but himself. In doing so, his clarity and self-awareness reach painful crescendos but never any catharsis. His problems are not those of a man running an empire, but they are problems inflicted upon him by the sins of a contemporary empire that stole all its greatest hits from its predecessors. The culpability of the leaders does not absolve Tell. Even good emperors commit unspeakable crimes; they, unlike him, are just in a better position to get away with them.
Tell’s eventual acceptance of the inevitable is perhaps his most Stoic trait in a movie chock-full of classical Stoicism. However, it comes with the realization that true philosophical Stoicism, just like true removal, is impossible for men like him. As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “Often injustice lies in what you aren’t doing, not only in what you are doing.” Remember this when Tell utters his most tragic line: “I’m going to make this right.”
Right and wrong blur in The Card Counter, but ultimately there is no cynicism in Schrader’s vision. No optimism either, but still, there’s a shred of hope found once a connection is made. Isaac’s every microexpression and involuntary touch of his face reveals the truth of a man who has forgotten not just how to live but to feel. But it’s equally impossible to interact with other people and not feel anything. “You woke me,” Tell admits to La Linda, without fully realizing what he is admitting. In the waking, Tell finds some comforting truths despite his hollowed-out journey down an unalterable course. Imperfect redemption still finds a semblance of peace.
The Card Counter is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.