Oscar Isaac in

Landmark's Shattuck Berkeley

From the titular Taxi Driver (1976) and American Gigolo (1980) to the religious fanatic of First Reformed (2017), writer and director Paul Schrader specializes in alienated male loners. William Tell (Oscar Isaac) in The Card Counter (2021) is the latest in that line of anti-heroes. Like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, William is scarred by his military service. He served in Iraq during the time when enhanced interrogation techniques became the norm. Even as he focuses on becoming a poker champion, he’s haunted by his past.

William has a “poker face” for most of the movie keeping his emotions in check. While his days are filled with card counting and playing, at night he can’t keep the nightmares of  torture at bay. The terrifying dream sequences are one of the strengths of the film. [For background, The Errol Morris documentary Standard Operating Procedure (2008) explores the Abu Ghraib case in detail.]

The past also arrives in Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of a fellow Iraq war veteran.  Here, The Card Counter introduces a second alienated male loner in the same movie. It could become a crowded field, but the dynamic between the older and younger men works. Is Cirk seeking a father figure in William or is he trying to kill him? That question isn’t resolved until the conclusion. Senior interrogator Gordo (Willem Dafoe) who’s established himself in civilian life as a life coach, is another possible target of Cirk’s rage. Besides Schrader’s other films, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), directed by John Frankenheimer, is a precursor that also explores suppressed rage and assassination.

Tiffany Haddish as “poker pimp” La Linda shows both toughness and vulnerability. La Linda runs a stable of top poker players and tries to recruit William who resists her overtures, trying to stay independent. To survive, William eventually has to trust her whether it’s in his best interest or not.

As with Schrader’s other films, attractive women come into the orbit of the alienated loner, but they’re usually just out of reach. Will this time be any different?

Music by

Robert Levon Been (music composed by)
Giancarlo Vulcano

Cinematography by

Alexander Dynan director of photography

Film Editing by

Benjamin Rodriguez Jr. (edited by)