By Lynn Venhaus
William Tell (a shortened surname) is a broken man, but he hides it well. With his well-groomed appearance, this sharp-dressed man looks every bit a winner when he walks through casinos across the country.
But cracks in his icy façade start showing in “The Card Counter,” once we view his austere existence, his penchant for staying at nondescript motels, his OCD-like tendencies, and the flashbacks to his grisly military service.
This revenge thriller shows how an ex-military interrogator turned gambler is haunted by the ghosts of his past.
Tell served in the Iraq War, and afterwards, spent 8.5 years in military prison for torturing the enemy at the Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad. The abhorrent behavior of the interrogators and the squalid living conditions are well-documented and glimpsed here.
Isaac is convincing as a man trying to come to terms with the lives he destroyed emotionally and physically. But the mental turmoil has clearly taken a toll, and he seeks redemption – despite not being able to forgive himself.
Wrestling with demons is a specialty of writer and director Paul Schrader, whose last film in 2017, “First Reformed,” was about a guilt-wracked pastor (Ethan Hawke, in his best work to date).
The quintessential outsider, Schrader finally received his first Oscar nomination for the “First Reformed” screenplay but has been part of such highly praised films as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “American Gigolo” for five decades.
He’s not afraid to explore the dark side, and neither is Isaac, who is most well-known as the heroic pilot Poe Dameron in the new “Star Wars” chapters. But he has impressed with edgy portraits in “A Most Violent Year,” “Ex Machina” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
This film is dark and disturbing, but also haunting and hypnotic. That is largely due to the cast’s interpretation of this material as well as first-rate production elements.
The fine young actor Tye Sheridan (“Mud,” “Joe”) plays Cirk, who is hell-bent on revenge. He hooks up with Tell at a law enforcement convention, where their mutual enemy, a retired major turned security consultant, Gordo (customary good work from Willem Dafoe), is the keynote speaker. Cirk blames Gordo for his father’s suicide, and he was Tell’s superior officer.
Tell decides to take Cirk under his wing on the casino trail, where he has met the intriguing La Linda, a keen observer who runs a gambling stable for corporations. She has her eye on Tell. He’s wary of this mysterious financier – Tiffany Haddish, playing against type – but he’s in. The trio’s goal is the World Series of Poker.
Like Rev. Toller in “First Reformed,” Tell writes his innermost thoughts in a diary. He has determined that Cirk is too undisciplined to control, and things will go from bad to worse – let’s leave it at that.
While the garish confines of casinos speak volumes about the people who flock there for refuge, entertainment and competition, it is a fitting backdrop for this drama. Alexander Dynan’s cinematography and Ashley Fenton’s production design add to the bleak atmosphere.
The throbbing music score composed by Robert Levon Been adds to a feeling of urgency and is a superb component to the escalating tension.
This is a tough watch. There is an inescapable sadness to it all, but if you are familiar with Schrader’s work, you would know what you are getting. His themes, as always, are his view of the country we live in, and the vulnerable way we all feel under duress.
“The Card Counter” is a revenge thriller directed by Paul Schrader and starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe. It is rated R for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality and the run time is 1 hour, 51 minutes. It opened in theaters on Sept. 10. Lynn’s Grade: B
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.