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“In my lonesome aberration,” croons a voice on the soundtrack of Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter. The phrase returns throughout the film like a self-defeating mantra, but for Schrader, there is nothing aberrant about loneliness. For 45 years, the writer-director has presented a rotating gallery of alienated young men seeking righteousness, from Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle to Ethan Hawke’s activist priest in 2017’s First Reformed. Along the way, he found collaborators in characters as disparate as Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), Yukio Mishima (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters), and Jesus Christ (The Last Temptation of Christ). They have so much in common: Most of them like to sit at desks and document their thoughts, and several of them try to save young innocent blondes from corruption. Still, the reiteration never grows tiresome. Each time, Schrader digs into his themes with the zeal of a young artist trying to make sense of the world, never getting any closer to an answer but still finding meaning in the questions.
In The Card Counter, his lonely man is William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a professional card player who seems to have chosen his vocation mainly for the itinerant lifestyle. An ex-con with a murky military history, William has modest goals for a poker player. He wants to earn enough to live but not enough to attract any attention. Even his wardrobe begs not to be noticed; he’s perpetually clad in black and gray to match his salt-and-pepper hair. He blends in like a ghost. Other players, he tells us in plain-spoken voiceover, wear sunglasses or hoodies to hide their reactions from the table. William looks everyone straight in the eye, confident that he has nothing to hide.
Despite his reclusive intentions, William is pursued by a pair of wild cards: La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who recruits players for a stable backed by anonymous businessmen, and Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a misguided young man seeking revenge against a private military contractor (Willem Dafoe) that William served under during the Iraq War. William tries to avoid entanglements, but that nagging itch that motivates all Schrader protagonists—that thing we call a conscience—eventually moves him to act. Still, the film is in no rush to make anything happen. It lets its relationships develop so gradually that it’s hard to pinpoint the moment when anything changes (Remember Bickle? “Then, suddenly there is a change.”) It feels like these characters have just met, but also like they’ve known each other forever. It unfolds in casino time, and if you lock into its rhythms, you’ll want it to go on forever.
And yet The Card Counter doesn’t offer anything resembling escapist pleasure. Most gambling movies elevate the thrills of the game, conjure a charm in the gamblers’ lifestyle, and downplay the grind. Not here. The casinos are like catacombs, quiet and lifeless, except for the occasional flashes of a slot machine. The players aren’t colorful characters, and there’s a menace in the monotony. Schrader shows how easy it is to lose yourself in the anonymity the game requires, and Isaac’s marvelously restrained performance enhances the chilly mood. Similar to the tricks he pulled off in the marvelous Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac effectively characterizes William Tell as a man who maintains a hard outer shell to perform the lie that he has given up hope. But his eyes flash with purpose every now and then.
He’s a captivating presence at the center of an ambiguous film. As he has so often done, Schrader locates the alienated American in our contemporary experience; here, the plot eventually settles on a mystery involving Iraqi war crimes. But he never tells us how to feel about it. When violence finally breaks out in The Card Counter, Schrader literally turns his gaze away from it, not out of decorum but because he’s genuinely unsure if catharsis is what we need. Instead, he asks us simply to consider the plight of William Tell, who chooses to live amidst the thin carpets and canned air of a cheap casino rather than spend a single moment thinking about his past. It’s a film with its finger on the pulse of America and all the blood pumping furiously just below the surface.
The Card Counter opens Sept. 10 in theaters.