The seedy casinos are poorly lighted and there are no clocks or windows. The metaphor is plain. The casino is a world where time stands still and the gamblers numbly ply their trades.
Hookers, bartenders, dealers, hustlers, frauds and freaks are all at large in these worlds. They are denizens of a busy, unrepentant, expressionless community that shares a secret code.
There’s nothing glamorous or jewelled or even romantic about the featureless tables where the card games and roulette wheels are played. The faces of the players gaze outward without taking in anything.
This is the sort of thing that William Tell (Oscar Isaac) might write in his journal. William, a loner who doesn’t stay in one place for very long, is a professional card player. In the darkness of his hotel rooms he makes notes in his diary. He covers the room furniture with light white cloths he carries in a suitcase and takes the pictures off the walls. He has a personal code: “I keep to modest goals,” he says, and he bets small to win small.
William Tell is the hero of Paul Schrader’s simmering new movie “The Card Counter.” He’s as calm and steady as they come, a man guided by ritual, but as played by Isaac, he’s a riveting character inhabiting a landscape that is equally, if not more ritualistic in its design.
“The Card Counter” is in many ways a more polished film than Schrader’s other major lone-wolf movie, “Light Sleeper,” but its polish ultimately makes it more resonant. Schrader, who also wrote the script, imposes a stripped-down aesthetic upon William’s story that evokes the fury below the surface and adds to the film’s tension.
“The Card Counter” is a vivid, galvanizing portrait of a character so singular it’s astonishing that he makes consistent dramatic sense. William Tell — a collaboration of filmmaker and actor — remains fascinating because he is more than a skilled, perceptive player. He carries the suppressed anger left from his experience as an Iraq vet, a torturer at Abu Ghraib and an eight-year stint in Leavenworth, refined in a performance that is effective as much for what Isaac reveals as for what he doesn’t reveal.
The script gives him plenty to work with. In the final sequence, “The Card Counter” focuses its deceptively simple plot into a manic spurt of screams, blows and bloodshed that is directly reflects what’s going on in William’s mind. William tells us about the secret of the roulette wheel: “You win, you walk away. You lose, you walk away.” The supporting performances are fine, including Tiffany Haddish as La Linda, who runs a stable of card players and is attracted to the mysterious William, Tye Sheridan as Cirk (pronounced Kirk), who wants revenge on retired Col. John Gordo (a snarling Willem Dafoe), the independent contractor he blames for the death of his father.
Schrader’s heroes are haunted, but you might argue they are deeply moral figures struggling to make things right in a dangerous, shadowy landscape.