The Card Counter (2021)

The Card Counter (2021) Cover

Heady topics have long been on legendary writer/director Paul Schrader's mind - whether it be his acclaimed classics like Raging Bull or his more recent First Reformed, which was one of my favorite films of 2018. With his latest The Card Counter, Schrader once again crafts a searing drama-thriller that acts as a wholly compelling character study as well as an ontological and moral examination of guilt and redemption. The writing for the film, as expected from Schrader, is nothing less than immaculate, but it's the director's ability to integrate new visual verve into potentially familiar material that gives the movie its best cards (pun intended). Add to that one of the most surprising yet effective ensembles of this past year - Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe, and of course Oscar Isaac - and you have a certified Schrader knockout. The Card Counter is admittedly not as piercing or subtextually rich as First Reformed, but its place as one of the year's most must-watch films is undeniable. This is a ferociously cold-blooded yet thematically perceptive character study that fires on all cylinders.

The Card Counter features one of the most surprisingly effective ensemble casts of the year. Arguably, the least suprising choice here is likely Oscar Isaac as William Tell, a travelling gambler with a haunted past. Isaac is nothing short of brilliant as Tell, and while he is playing a very Schrader-esque brooding, steely character, his performance speaks volumes through nuance in the film's most emotional moments. Isaac is the heart and soul of the film and constantly onscreen, but his turn as William Tell is going to go down as one of the best performances of his career thus far (who knows how Dune may change that?). Tiffany Haddish, conversely, may be the most surprising choice - the talented comedic performer, whose burgeoning dramatic career seems to have led her here, at first seems like a counterintuitive choice for this more contemplative dramatic film. However, Haddish delivers a knockout performance as La Linda, a woman who develops a complicated relationship with the engimatic Isaac. Then there's Tye Sheridan, also an arguably strange choice for this film, but his pivotal turn as Cirk adds brand new layers to the film. Willem Dafoe is mostly in a glorified special appearance here, but his powerful presence as Major John Gordo constantly drives the narrative of the film.

It's hardly a surprise for writer/director Paul Schrader to turn in great work, but The Card Counter once again displays the filmmaker's biggest strengths and talents. Despite dealing with dark and often difficult topics, Schrader displays artistry but also a level of restraint that only works to enrich his work. Such is the case again with this film, which deals with questions of morality and guilt, but distills its themes through textured performances and nuanced writing. The Card Counter acts as a skillful examination of the grounded consequences of decisions and the ramifications behind revenge, but also communicates these themes through patient direction and moments of verve when necessary. Nevertheless, The Card Counter remains endlessly compelling, atmospheric, and an emotionally intense experience - one that challenges the audience at every turn and pierces at the hearts and minds of its characters.

Final Verdict:Writer/director Paul Schrader's immaculately crafted and layered examination of redemption and guilt is yet another successful outing from the legendary filmmaker, who is aided by one of the year's best ensemble of performers thus far.