The fingerprints of executive producer Martin Scorsese are all over this thriller. Few characters, but ones who brim with mystery, intrigue and plot importance. Class struggles and immersion in a world of high stakes, risk and crime that is painted with equal beauty as it is danger, something Scorsese has made a career of in his works. Director Paul Schrader, writer of such Scorsese films as Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead, knows how to tell a gritty story about a lifestyle few know about, a story that is laced with all the elements we have come to expect from a Schrader/Scorsese combo.
Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, a professional card counter and gambler and plays the casino tables as smoothly and discreet as James Bond; he cuts a suave appearance, has unflinching eyes and is cool, calm and collected as he goes about his days and nights. Yet he’s not here to woo women and drink vodka martinis. We learn he’s a former US Private First Class solider, haunted by demons of crimes committed at the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison. This grounds his personality with an ever-present sense of danger and emotion, and gives Tell motivation as to why he plays, and why he wants to keep out of prison.
Isaac does it best when he’s not playing in the big film franchises. The quieter, more subdued and more gripping films he lends his hand to such as The Promise or Ex Machina are much more catered to his acting talent. His smooth, sultry but rough around the edges lead guides us through poker early on, but this is no Casino Royale. It’s a dark world, with real risks and real people often playing for bigger stakes than just money.
We have wonderful support from the beautiful and fun Tiffany Haddish, the peppy Tye Sheridan and the ever-watchable Willem Dafoe. Haddish especially shares great screen time with Isaac, and the two have a snappy repartee together you can really get behind. Collectively, these three stars help to build the world around Isaac and let him really forge relationships that give him purpose for the story, all without ever falling into a predictable, saccharine-induced outcome. As to be expected from Schrader, he has solid writing, based all around the analysis of the real world and the exploration of seemingly ordinary people with extraordinary histories.
Schrader doesn’t shy away from real world incidents to give his characters meat to the bones. Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay is presented through a mix of actual footage and distorted, effective, dramatisation. The inhumane, brutal and barbaric actions of those who were meant to be on the side of good form the crux of this story and the motivations of people like Tell and Cike. It’s a brave and fascinating look at how such events had left a mark on those involved, and the guilt carried on their shoulders. Tell, as a gambler, is gambling with much more than just other people’s money when you understand his backstory.
We have rich lights, sounds and locations to add a real dreamy, but glamorous feel to this story. It also acts as a semi-psychedelic trip for Tell on his journey, surrounded by a world he only thought he knew, experiencing new emotions and feelings and thrills he once thought dead and buried. A smooth score carries a smooth story, one part Ocean’s Eleven to two parts Casino.
The film doesn’t need to be about guns and gangsters in order to be an intriguing watch – it is character based and set in the exciting world of gambling and poker, which can make or break people with the turn of a card, and so this immediately has you wanting the good people to come out on top, but not always in the way you’d expect.
The Card Counter may not be for everyone as the slow burning, explorative drama that it is, but it’s a simple premise told by masters of their craft and fronting another strong performance from Isaac wrapped up in the absorbing, ruthless world of poker.