The Reel Review
A former military prison guard previously jailed for torturing inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq tries to use his skills as a modern day, professional poker player to prevent the son of a former military colleague from exacting revenge on the men’s commander who had escaped justice, in this crime thriller starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe.
The story from writer/director Paul Schrader (First Reformed, American Gigolo) is a quirky one. It’s more of a character profile of a mysterious and idiosyncratic card-counting card shark haunted by his troubled past than an actual plot. Poker is merely the pretext for life lessons about monotonous hard work as well as the pitfalls and high price of revenge. The film is intriguing and visually very stylish, but the aimless narrative is at times hard to follow.
Isaac’s dead-eyed performance, however, is excellent, with his William Tell playing out his symbolism-laden, self-torturous, toxic self-hate, staying in budget motels where he wraps all the furnishings in white sheets to make them resemble prison cells. Isaac’s onscreen chemistry with Sheridan, as the emotionally volatile and immature Cirk, is believable. Less convincing is his character’s relationship with the poker investor La Linda, played by a miscast Tiffany Haddish, in a rare, serious role.
• The Card Counter writer/director Paul Schrader grew up in a strict Dutch Calvinist religious family in Grand Rapids, Michigan that prohibited him from seeing movies as a child. The former film critic wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and has directed a number of films about solitary characters, such as the 1979 crime drama Hardcore, 1980’s American Gigolo, 1982’s Cat People, and more recently the 2013 erotic thriller The Canyons and 2017’s First Reformed, which earned him his first Oscar nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. His next film, The Gardener, will star Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton.
• After Shia LaBeouf dropped out of The Card Counter due to scheduling conflicts, Schrader’s close friend Nicolas Cage recommended Tye Sheridan for the role of Cirk.
• Oscar Isaac and Tye Sheridan were both in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse.