Written and Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Hadish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe, Adrienne Lau, Alexander Babara, Bobby C. King

The Card Counter is the kind of film we’ve come to expect from Paul Schrader. Never one to pick the easy subjects, he goes for the collateral damage of Abu Ghraib, with some card playing as the vehicle. William Tell (Isaac) is a former military prisoner who learned to count cards while serving a sentence for his part in the hostage interrogation nightmare from the Iraq War. He looks upon his sentence as just and accepts his role as a player who wins small amounts but never stays at the casinos he plays. He takes what they’ll give them and moves on.

One day, when he is between matches, he strikes up a conversation with La Linda (Hadish) who offers to become his backer. He refuses. Then he meets up with Cirk (Sheridan) at a seminar held by his former leader at Abu Ghraib, Major John Gordo (Dafoe). Dafoe taught all of the “interrogation techniques,” employed in the prison. Since he served as a civilian consultant, he was exempted from punishment. Cirk has it out for the consultant, because his father, who also served under Gordo, came home in such a violent and abusive state, his mother left. Then his father continued abusing him before killing himself.Tell takes Cirk along with him in hopes of convincing him to not pursue his vendetta. He also agrees to work with La Linda. There are reasons for both that are entirely logical to his goals.

If this sounds like typical Schrader fare, you are right. There is a moral conflict, with a touch of vigilantism and the hope of romance thrown into the mix. There is an education on how one goes about counting cards, but it is more exposition than exhibition. If you’re going into this hoping to see some grand demonstration of the difficulty of finding the river in poker, you’ll still be searching by film’s end.

The performances all resonate. Isaac shows that he has the capability to be one of our greatest actors, and he’s only going half speed here. Hadish executes her role with a graceful perfection. Sheridan gives a bit more depth than I am used to seeing him portray. Dafoe is not onscreen long enough to break out of the mold we all know of him.

Schrader executes his vision effectively here. We understand exactly what he is trying to say. The only challenge will be if you go along with the narrative, as it leaves no room for nuance. If you agree with his thesis or not, the story stays in its own zone right with the message he wants to convey.

This film is Schrader 101. It’s a good starting point if you haven’t attempted some of his more challenging work. If you enjoy it, maybe move on to Auto Focus, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Hardcore or even The Last Temptation of Christ. None of these are easy but all of them are vital. Schrader is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some of us like our tea as dark as the blackest coffee on a cold, bleak morning.

(**** out of *****)

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