Review: Oscar Isaac struggles with so-so hand in 'The Card Counter'

Paul Schrader's follow-up to "First Reformed" takes on too much at one time.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "The Card Counter," writer-director Paul Schrader plunges the audience deep into the world of poker playing. It's a world the movies have visited plenty of times before, in films like "California Split" and "Rounders," and there's a seediness to the landscape that makes it fertile ground for noir-leaning dramas. 

Oscar Isaac and Tye Sheridan in "The Card Counter."

Noir-leaning dramas are Schrader's stock-in-trade, and the 75-year-old screenwriting legend (he penned "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull") caught a humdinger of a comeback with 2017's "First Reformed," in which a conflicted minister wrestled with the lingering effects of our ongoing environmental tragedy. For this follow-up, Schrader's got more on his mind than just gambling, and "The Card Counter" takes on the scars on America's psyche from its torture of detainees following the 9/11 attacks. But no matter how much he puts in the middle, it's a bet Schrader's hand can't cover. 

He finds a simmering leading man in Oscar Isaac, who plays William Tell, like the overture. William went to prison for his role in torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and while locked up he learned to count cards. He now takes low-stakes pots at Midwestern hole-in-the-wall casinos, quietly moving from town to town, staying in bargain bin hotels where he covers every surface in bedsheets and ties them down with twine. He doesn't want anyone to know who he is or where he's been.

William is a quiet, moody character in a world of opportunists and showoffs: he shares tables with the likes of guys named Religious Ronnie and Mr. USA, who loudly chants "U-S-A!" after every good hand and is rooted on by a squad of cronies, despite the fact that he's actually Ukrainian. It's a fascinating, lowly lit, dingy world that Schrader introduces, but his attention is elsewhere. 

Tye Sheridan plays Cirk (pronounced "Kirk," a needless quirk), a college-aged kid that Tell meets in a hotel; he's the son of another torturer who is looking to exact revenge on Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), who headed up the torture op that sent William away and gave him a lifetime of mental issues. William takes Cirk underneath his wing, but their chemistry never really makes sense.  

William has better chemistry with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a high stakes poker backer, who becomes William's benefactor in a series of tournaments. But the drama in "The Card Counter" isn't in their romance or at the poker table, it's in William's head as he grapples with his past (and, conversely, America's past) and our place in the present because of that past.

"The Card Counter" is just as conflicted as William, and Schrader's noble intent doesn't conflate with what comes across on screen. As a gambling drama it's underplayed, and as a character study it's as obtuse as its lead character. Robert Levon Been's arresting music helps underscore the film's murky mood. But the film is waiting on an ace that never arrives.


'The Card Counter'


Rated R: for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality

Running time: 112 minutes

In theaters