Filmmaker Paul Schrader is renown for taking us to the dingiest of places and introducing us to the gloomiest of people, and these are good reasons to watch the movies in the first place.
Hopefully, we don’t want to be the imploding taxi driver, raging middleweight boxer, or guilt-ridden Calvinist priest, but it is surely an intriguing escape to vicariously walk in the shoes of Schrader’s pitiable characters. If anything, they are all seeking salvation.
Because it’s a Paul Schrader film, they likely won’t find it.
I was thoroughly captivated by The Card Counter’s gradual unveiling of its two male leads—one running away from the past, the other face planting right into it. The runner is William Tell, played by Oscar Isaac in a mechanical, chiseled, and unblinking performance that would never be acknowledged nor rewarded by the Oscars, and I mean that as a compliment.
Although he knows the fundamentals of counting cards (impossible to not think of Rain Man) and gambles his way through seedy casino dives on the east coast, this movie is less about poker and more about seeking redemption from an unforgivable past involving insurmountable torture. When William runs into Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man with a plan for revenge on a military figure who ruined his father’s life, he is given an opportunity to be a savior, and as we all (should) know, playing God doesn’t end well.
I don’t want to spoil any further plot lines because Schrader masterfully unfolds his characters’ motives one conversation at a time. The chemistry between these two men is cold and uncomfortable, but because of the codependency they so desperately need from each other, there are surprises at each turn. No, the ending wasn’t satisfying whatsoever, but with a setup this grim, I didn’t expect it would fulfill. (And, I tend to feel the same way about most of Paul Schrader’s conclusions.)
I get the question all the time from my friends, mom, and wife: “Why would you want to watch such a dark movie?”
My answer: As repelling and grim a setting in The Card Counter—including characters beyond despicable—I can only feel grateful and entertained to be in the safety of my local movie theater to experience such a time and a place and not actually have to be there.
It’s the perfect opportunity for empathy.
That is why I go to the movies in the first place.
The Card Counter (2021) **** out of *****