The Card Counter (3 stars)

The Card Counter

Oscar Isaac in gambling thriller The Card Counter

Oscar Isaac makes a compelling centre in Paul Schrader's gambling thriller

Something of a companion piece to the brilliant 2017 drama First Reformed, The Card Counter finds Paul Schrader once again plumbing the murky depths of the male psyche as only the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull knows how. The results are less assured this time in a film that features a number of wobbles but that also has the power to grab and transfix you, with its strange and haunting imagery, eccentric touches and furiously intense lead turn from the always-interesting Oscar Isaac.

Going by the name of William Tell, Isaac's protagonist is an ex-soldier with a shady past who straightened himself out during an eight-year prison stretch, where he developed a fondness for routine and reading, and taught himself to count cards. Although highly skilled, he stays under the radar of casino operators by betting small and winning modestly. William is courted by a regular on the circuit, Tiffany Haddish's charismatic La Linda, who runs a gambling stable and is looking to match him with an investor. He also befriends an angry young man Cirk (Tye Sheridan) with whom he has an enemy in common, Willem Dafoe's former military contractor John Gordo, a specialist in 'enhanced interrogation' techniques, who was instrumental in the Abu Ghraib abuses, but unlike the ordinary soldiers escaped prosecution.

The Card Counter benefits from a slick and fascinating opening which introduces us to William's almost robotic rehabilitation, idiosyncratic philosophy and creepy habits, hooking you in from the off. It's often enjoyably weird and paints a less glamorous and more believable picture of the poker scene than most (a guy in stars and stripes chanting U-S-A is one of William's more successful competitors).

However, the seesawing tone can distract as Schrader flirts with odd-couple comedy and romance alongside a chilling examination of the after-effects of war and torture, with Haddish's character not especially well incorporated. But Isaac simmers with violent potential, whilst conveying the torment of a man trying to leave his past behind him; despite William's vaguely sinister inner monologue, the character makes for an appealingly ambiguous focus in a film that has a number of meticulously executed scenes and a certain edge-of-your-seat unpredictability.

Available to watch in cinemas from Friday 5 November.

The Card Counter

  • 3 stars
  • 2021
  • 1h 51min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Paul Schrader
  • Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe

Paul Schrader takes on a story of redemption in The Card Counter as only he can, producing a slow-burn thriller full of tense atmosphere and thought-provoking questions about morality. Tonally very different from his last outing, First Reformed, it’s pure Schrader – a haunting story about another lonely soul, who grapples…