Like Paul Schrader’s last directorial outing, First Reformed, The Card Counter left me torn walking out of the theater. While well-crafted and performed, the film is a slow burn that rarely lets you know what’s going on in the protagonist’s head. As time passed, though, I gradually came to appreciate the film for the exact reasons that initially frustrated me. In many respects, the subdued atmosphere complements The Card Counter even more than First Reformed. Since the main character is a gambler, it makes sense that he’d play the whole film with a poker face.
Of course, The Card Counter isn’t truly about poker. The opening moments suggest otherwise, as we undergo several drawn-out inner-monologues about the game. While these scenes can feel like glorified poker tutorials with a neo-noir twist, the film gets going as we unravel the enigma that is William Tell (Oscar Isaac). At least that’s the name that he goes by. Tell travels from tournament to tournament, staying in cheap motels. This guy is so reserved that he meticulously wraps every object in his motel rooms with gray sheets. Tell keeps everything on the inside, letting only two people in.
While best known for her outrageous comedic roles, Tiffany Haddish has shown potential as a dramatic actress in films like The Kitchen and shows like Self Made. The Card Counter is among her best outings, playing a businesswoman named La Linda who takes a special interest in Tell. While La Linda is talkative and Tell is stoically silent, both are tough as nails, amounting to a surprisingly compelling relationship. La Linda believes that he can dominate the World Series of poker, but Tell has greater emotional stakes in a young protégé named Cirk (Tye Sheridan).
Tell and Cirk share a link to Willem Dafoe’s Major John Gordo, who got away with using unspeakable torture tactics in Guantanamo Bay. While Gordo was at the top, Tell still played a role as a former interrogator. The PTSD-stricken Tell did time for his crimes, but his search for repentance never ends. Tell sees Cirk as a shot at redemption, but the kid is only interested in revenge. Their dynamic is reminiscent of Paul Newman and Tom Cruise in The Color of Money. In many respects, The Card Counter is closer to what a follow-up to The Hustler should’ve been with a somber tone throughout.
The Card Counter also naturally draws comparison to another Paul Schrader-Martin Scorsese collaboration, Taxi Driver. Like Travis Bickle, Tell keeps the audience guessing. You don’t know where his journey will end, but there will undoubtedly be blood. Where Travis’ final destination was perfectly executed, though, Tell’s is a mixed bag. Without going into spoilers, the climax remains true to the protagonist’s guarded nature. On the other hand, it feels as if we missed a crucial part of the character’s arc. Imagine Drive without the infamous elevator scene. It leaves the audience wanting more, which might explain my initial unfulfilled sentiment. That, and a final shot weirdly taken from E.T. As a whole, however, The Card Counter is richly atmospheric and intense without ever showing its hand.