CALLERI: Stellar Oscar Isaac Adds Dimension To ‘The Card Counter’ | Night and day

Oscar Isaac’s performance in “The Card Counter” comes like a breath of cold air on a miserably hot summer day.

In this psychologically complex film from writer-director Paul Schrader, Isaac plays a taciturn man named William Tell (real surname Tellich), who is a loner like so many of Schrader’s previous protagonists have been.

Its most fascinating characters go through their lives with something missing from their sense of well-being. Sometimes they meet a person who makes them think inside, a person who forces them to find out something about themselves.

Schrader, influenced as he was by the austere films of Frenchman Robert Bresson, in particular his “Pickpocket” – one of my favorite films – most often recounts the lonely in his writing and directing, including in two of its most powerful scenarios.

You’ll find adrift characters in the dozens of scripts written by Schrader, but Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and Julian Kay in “American Gigolo” particularly stand out. Martin Scorsese directed “Taxi Driver”, but Schrader himself powered “American Gigolo” with his directorial energy.

There is a compelling visual connection between “The Card Counter” and “American Gigolo” when a female character named La Linda (kindly played by Tiffany Haddish) has to express her empathy with Tell through a transparent barrier.

We have a feeling at first that our trip with Tell is going to be unusual because of what he does after he arrives in a motel room. He wraps everything in fabric – the desk, his chair, the lamps, the bed frame and the posts. We are intrigued, as we should be. This activity of enveloping the world around him is carried out slowly and methodically. This takes us into the character’s universe. This makes us wonder about him.

Tell was released from the military prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. He is a veteran of the Iraq war, a former military interrogator and one of a group of soldiers who mistook the fall for crimes of torture that were committed. Their commanders suffered no punishment.

Tell writes entries in his journal about his past and present. It is a meditative act for him, an expressive way of calming his inner self. However, violent imagery haunts his written and verbal contemplation. Schrader doesn’t fire any punches here. The inhumanity of man towards man is omnipresent. Tell now hates the idea of ​​war and regrets his role in Iraq.

In prison, Tell became skilled at counting cards. Returning to civilian life, he roams the new American perspective of bland suburbs and plays blackjack and poker at the casinos that dot the landscape. He often wins. He is careful. He is careful. He walks away from the tables before the casino workers can get a feel for his card counting abilities. It reveals through storytelling what is fundamental to knowing how the cards are going to flow.

La Linda watched him. She’s smart and knows he’s good at what he can do at the card table. She makes him an offer. There are funders she works for who are willing to pay her entry fee to poker tournaments for a share of the winnings. He prefers solitude. He will not be staying in tournament hotels. He will accept the money, but because of a challenge he faces.

Schrader lets us know that even dark lives have a silver lining. And then he lets us know that the glow of light can quickly turn into darkness.

Tell is also on the radar of a young man named Cirk, pronounced Kirk. If the film is a knife, then the knife twists and turns. Cirk (well played by Tye Sheridan) has his own reason for wanting Tell to be involved with him. His father, who served in Iraq with Tell, had acted heinously toward the Iraqis. A man vicious to his own family, including Cirk, he never recovered from the trauma of war. Also released from prison, he ended up committing suicide.

Young Cirk blames Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe, perfect as he always is) for his father’s death. He wants Tell to help him kill Gordo, a rigid man who believes in increasing personal security in the United States to thwart the enemies of American democracy.

“The Card Counter” offers a set of cat and mouse games. Linda plays with Tell to get what she wants. Cirk plays with Tell to achieve his goal. Tell the toys with his own promise to himself, convinced that it is better to walk alone in life and not owe anyone anything. Choosing to be the voice of reason for Cirk would go against what he believes. What happens is up to you to find out.

The film, which is shown at the Amherst Theater, features scenes of poker games that are more atmospheric than anything else. A vocal tournament winner celebrates his victories wrapped in the American flag.

“The Card Counter” is about a man who doesn’t want help, money or hope from people. As he slowly alters the big picture of his own philosophical and moral code, you see him mock the possibility of constraints that even the slightest deal would create.

Schrader’s mighty film is a rarity. It tells a really important story that is both powerful and alluring. Isaac, who is extraordinary in the role of Tell, plays a man of honor who is tightly wrapped up intellectually and has tried to let go of his past.

Tell recognizes that playing poker is a bit like participating in a war. He also knows exactly where he would prefer to be.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI News Network. Contact him at [email protected]

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