Two figures emerge to break up Tell’s lonely existence. Tiffany Haddish’s La Linda tries to enlist him into her stable of poker players, where she and her investors stake the players in major tournaments and collect a share of their winnings. That kind of exposure is the opposite of what Tell is looking for and he politely refuses. Tye Sheridan’s Cirk provides a connection to Tell’s past life as PFC William Tillich, an interrogator at Abu Ghraib who was busted for prisoner abuse. He runs into Cirk by coincidence at a casino conference where Tell’s old instructor, John Gordo (William Dafoe), is giving a seminar. Cirk, the son of another convicted soldier who killed himself, attempts to enlist Tell on a mission of revenge against Gordo, but Tell instead takes Cirk under his wing, teaching him how to leech off casinos. This modest lifestyle isn’t enough for Cirk, however, whose mother is in desperate financial straits, so Tell takes up La Linda on her offer.
Isaac’s tightly-wound intensity is a perfect match for Schrader, and The Card Counter is at its best when it is merely observing its lead. With an immaculate haircut and a monochrome wardrobe of grays and blacks, Isaac strides through casino floors with purpose, the personification of a version of cool that both attracts and repels attention. That composure, revealed by Schrader’s typical use of an internal monologue, exists with considerable effort on Tell’s part, as his psyche is roiled by his past actions. Nightmares that send him back to the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib are filmed in a fisheye lens that doesn’t focus on the horrors happening in the background, but one can’t ignore the screams. Dafoe’s played a lot of villains in his career, but few have been as slimy as Gordo, deformed in close-up during these sequences.
Blackjack’s a strong metaphor for Tell’s backstory. Compared to something like roulette, where every spin is an independent event with no bearing on past results, every choice in blackjack informs future ones. If everybody played correctly according to an easily accessible set of rules that the casino itself sells in its gift shop, the house advantage dwindles to a rounding error. What actually happens, as anyone who knows these rules and has to suffer the fools who don’t, is that people think they know better than brute statistics and make bad choices. Sometimes, this makes everybody lose at the table. More infuriatingly, it can lead to the person who made the wrong choice beating the odds and winning, while everyone else loses. Gordo’s the asshole who splits tens and gets away with it, flaunting convention for his own personal benefit and taking his winnings home while everyone else suffers. He was able to skirt responsibility for his deeds while Tell and Cirk’s dad were tried and convicted. They did the thing, they made the bet, but justice was not equally applied.
The real life equivalent of this goes beyond gambling metaphors and generates a healthy pool of rage that The Card Counter gets a boost from. The hack psychologists who developed the torture program were paid tens of millions for their monstrous efforts and have never suffered an ounce of comeuppance, nor have those in the government and the security state who made the program happen. Instead, they get to write books from comfy retirements or appear as experts on cable news shows or continue to advance up the bureaucratic ladder despite the uncovering of what they were responsible for. Schrader doesn’t put clean or retributive violence in his films. Even those that deserve it are reduced to messes whose desperate pathos steals any theoretical catharsis from the protagonist doing the deed. That said, and without having an encyclopedic knowledge of Schrader’s work, it’s hard to imagine a more despicable character than Gordo, doubly so because he can so freely walk around and be celebrated within the barely fictionalized world of the film.
Despite Isaac’s performance and the film’s raw thematic rage at what has been allowed and swept under the rug in 21st century America, The Card Counter is a mess that lacks any feel of authenticity in most of its scenes. For all its attempts to make Tell into a gambling genius, the film is out of its element with the substance of playing blackjack. Even if he’s great at counting cards, there are still basic strategic rules to blackjack that he doesn’t seem to know. This is worse when the film moves to poker, a game Schrader knows even less about. Haddish’s great comedic talents are not put to any use, and Schrader has a view of her character out of step with what she’s actually doing. She’s a pimp siphoning off winnings from workers, and because the film knows or cares so little about poker, she’s saddled with ignorant comments about what’s supposed to be her area of expertise. The film thinks she’s charming and a potential way out of Tell’s exile, but she’s actually a dilettante usurer made of wood. Haddish is at least out of her wheelhouse. Sheridan is the real disappointment, a once promising actor who seems to have lost what made him so memorable in film’s like Mud and The Tree of Life. Just like Haddish, he’s wooden and left out to dry by a script that gives him expositional questions to ask, all while having no rapport with Isaac. Making Tell impenetrable might be a choice by the film, but it does a tremendous disservice to Isaac’s costars. Travis Bickle at least could make Cybill Shepherd’s character smile.
The Card Counter’s frustrating errors don’t completely overshadow how great it is to see Isaac back to work, and it’s his presence that brings this film to a state of acceptance. His mid-2010’s run of Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year, and Ex Machina were some of that decade’s best work, and even if the film that serves as his reemergence from big-budget hell is not the best work of anyone involved, Isaac is at least given enough room to remind the viewer what’s been missed out on. The Card Counter was hopefully a good enough experience for Isaac that Schrader might work with him again, and they can produce something closer to Schrader’s masterpieces. C+