Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter landed in theaters last week, a revenge thriller that explores the story of a man who’s living a spartan existence on the casino trail. William Tell is haunted by the ghosts of his past decisions, and the mundanity of his daily routine is eventually shattered by the arrival of a young man named Cirk.
Oscar Isaac leads The Card Counter, walking in the shoes of a man with the ashes of regret burning the back of his throat, masking his nightmares underneath a slick, self-assured persona. This isn’t the first role that’s tasked Isaac with a serious, heavy character study, and given his performance here, it certainly won’t be the last.
This is one of the darker roles across his career. Tell in particular challenged Isaac to tiptoe along a ledge, flirting with the blurred lines between right and wrong on his path to redemption. There’s an unforgettable moment between Tell and Cirk late in the film where Tell drops all pretense of the outward calm that he’s been projecting, giving way to a chilling, unsettling chasm with no end in sight. Sharp as a knife, Isaac commands this scene in a breathtaking manner.
The way that the film plays out places a heavy emphasis on the shoulders of its actors to carry the scenes. Isaac excels at this as he balances the magnitude of key moments with his expressive eyes and the carefully controlled cadence of his voice. Tiffany Haddish’s La Linda, meanwhile, counteracts Tell’s enigmatic tendencies, softening the edges of his story with an energy that reverberates through scenes in her wake. There’s also an endearing aspect to the relationship found between Tell and Tye Sheridan’s Cirk; the two are a fitting pair as they hit the road and embark on their journey.
And while The Card Counter works its way steadily through a tale that becomes increasingly engrossing as the chips pile up, the sounds and visuals along the way lend themselves appropriately to its overall allure. Specifically, the score is a standout accomplishment as it cascades between thrilling tension and dreamy tranquility.
In the throes of its final act, The Card Counter builds up with a white-hot intensity as Tell thrusts down his cards — both metaphorically and literally — and goes all in. The darkness that’s been been patiently lurking at the edges of the story bleeds across the page, an all encompassing affair. However, just as quickly as it comes, it crawls away with a quiet whimper that feels disappointing in a way.
There’s a disconnected and faraway feeling in the film’s final moments; it feels like an elegant crescendo tripping on the way out. It’s an irrefutable fact that the trajectory of the film’s narrative made the ending inevitable — a simple game of cause and effect. However, the final stop just ultimately didn’t feel as satisfying as the intriguing, intense ride to get there.
That being said, The Card Counter still stands as a compelling watch nonetheless and has plenty about it to appreciate and digest afterward.
The Card Counter is now playing in theaters.