What is the weight of a person’s life? Does it have value on its own or only through their interactions with others? And is there redemption without forgiveness? These are the kinds of questions asked by writer/director Paul Schrader — both directly and indirectly — in films like Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and First Reformed (2017), and he’s back at in in his latest feature, The Card Counter. As is often the case with Schrader’s work, though, the answers aren’t always as easy to come by.
Will Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a poker player living just this side of “professional,” and he travels the country winning more than enough to live but not quite enough to draw attention. His motel stays see him wrap white sheets around furniture and hide artwork to eliminate distractions and encourage bland stability while he writes in his journals about gambling, his traumatic past, and his uncertain desire for life. Will was a member of the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib where he partook in the torture of prisoners, and while he served time for his actions — along with other enlisted soldiers, while those above who ordered the actions escaped conviction — the memories have haunted both his dreams and his waking hours.
Will’s not entirely convinced he was punished enough for his crimes, but two new acquaintances might just show him the value of looking forward instead of falling back. La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) recognizes his talent, and she wants to back him on the pro circuit. Cirk (Tye Sheridan) is the son of a man who served with Will, and he wants Will’s help committing a murder.
The Card Counter introduces viewers to a man who’s both constantly on the edge of internal chaos and wholly in control, and it’s a dichotomy that Schrader clearly loves in his protagonists. Will sees no real reason to his ongoing life, yet he’s constantly searching for one all the same. He’s undeserving of affection and kindness, yet he can’t quite turn it away when offered. Schrader’s character drama unfolds from Will’s personal anguish, and as with Taxi Driver‘s (1976) Travis Bickle and First Reformed‘s Reverend Toller, viewers are tasked with buying into a lead character whose focus struggles when it ventures away from himself. At its weaker moments, The Card Counter struggles right along with him.
Will’s backstory is enough to make him nearly unforgivable, and even with time served his arc towards redemption in viewers’ eyes is a tough and long road to walk. Isaac embodies a broken man, his voiceover narration detailing the mechanics of card counting and casino odds as if he was reading an ingredients list. It’s lifeless and sad, but it’s by design as this is a man who himself is sad and lifeless. Isaac’s performance (both verbal and expressive) is so strong as to leave viewers feeling for the man despite his past actions, and something akin to heartbreak builds as a result. By contrast, both La Linda and Cirk inject Will (and The Card Counter itself) with varying degrees of life, albeit in tone and persona that feel at odds with each other, but the slowly beating heart remains Will.
Haddish and Sheridan are both fine here, but in addition to competing with each other, their characters are competing with Schrader’s — and Will’s — incredible anger and uncertain accountability. Will’s a sinner and a shame to America, his biggest opponent on the circuit is a player whose shtick involves flag waving and “USA” chants, and a police convention means easy money at the table. Still, he falls for La Linda, and the unexpected pairing pays off with small moments of warmth even if Will himself can’t quite see them. And his relationship with Cirk is more familial as he attempts, perhaps in vain, to be a surrogate father to a young man who’s lost due to actions that were never his own. There’s arguably too many of these smaller stories butting heads here, but Isaac holds them together.
There’s no flash to The Card Counter — it’s a film with a focus on gambling yet never concerns itself with set-pieces or suspense on the topic — and instead feels content being a slowburn that teases the drabness of Will’s motel room decor. It’s perhaps fitting and works for this character, but those expecting a stronger degree of tension will be left empty handed. Flashbacks to Abu Ghraib comes with a barrage of sound, from blaring metal music to the screams of captors and captives alike, and it’s an intentionally stark contrast to Will’s present (and the film’s bulk). This is a quiet, contemplative film, and while the murder thread comes close to being a “proper” narrative it’s ultimately a minor one as it feels artificial in the face of Will’s internal struggle.
“Is there an end to punishment?” To each their own on that count, but for Will, a man who acknowledges his own guilt and sees no justification for his ongoing presence, it’s a question he can’t quite find the answer to. It’s a weighty topic, and while Schrader can’t quite get The Card Counter to similar heights as some of his past films, its examination here feels as necessary as Will’s search for forgiveness.