As is the case with most films that Paul Schrader has either written or directed, the main theme in “The Card Counter” is that of a lost soul who is seeking personal redemption. This intense drama hits all the expected targets of a Schrader film (including a final cathartic, violent act by a protagonist searching for salvation), but the film still feels disappointing and pointless in the end.
Former military interrogator turned gambler William (Oscar Isaac) is a man who is haunted by personal demons of his past. William is suffering emotionally and lives an isolated existence in nondescript motel rooms as he travels from casino to casino, counting cards at blackjack tables and playing in Texas hold ’em tournaments. One day William is approached by an angry young man named “Kirk-with-a-C” (Tye Sheridan), and it comes to light that they share a mutual enemy in John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Hoping to set Cirk on a new path, William invites him to come along on a poker circuit tour bankrolled by financier La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). While Cirk is obsessed with exacting revenge on the military colonel, William finds atonement to be his only obsession.
The performances are across the board fantastic, except for a pretty serious casting misstep with Haddish. She’s great in roles that showcase her unique talent, but here she seems awkward and uncomfortable. Isaac brings a somber sensibility to a morally complex man who is living with the torment of years of trauma, anger, and guilt. He has a chemistry with Sheridan that works well onscreen as their characters share their personal demons and bond together as two lonely, tortured souls.
Schrader lacks focus in his direction and storytelling, with scenes that jump from card shuffling at an Atlantic City casino to graphic war crimes being committed at Abu Ghraib. Plot points are forced in an effort to bridge the gap and keep the locations relevant to each other, but the majority of the screenplay feels forced and contrived.
“The Card Counter” is saddled with an ending that’s not as clever nor effective as it may appear at first glance, so even the strongest element of the story feels futile. With so much talent in front of and behind the camera, a film like this doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) feel so routine.