Review: Oscar Isaac Plays a Complicated, Compelling Game in Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter

William Tell (Oscar Isaac), the central character of writer/director Paul Schrader’s latest work, The Card Counter, may seem more pulled together and in control of his actions than many of the protagonists and antiheroes who populate Schrader's other films (First Reformed, Auto Focus, American Gigolo, Blue Collar; he also wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for Martin Scorsese, who is an executive producer on this movie). But as we travel deeper into the film, we’re both grateful and horrified at just how wrong our first impression of Tell really is.

The Card Counter Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Tell is a slew of walking contradictions, right down to his fictional surname, especially since he spends a great deal of the movie playing poker and is often the only contestant not wearing shades or a hoodie, or making a fool of himself to cover up any potential tells. His hair and clothes are nearly immaculate, you get a sense that he never blinks, and he doesn’t just read the faces of his opponents; he looks into their souls. But there are other things about him, like the way he always stays in cheap motels, despite having money (he says it’s because he doesn’t like staying in casino hotels because there are too many cameras). Also, he wraps every piece of furniture in sheets and twine. At first we think it’s because these hotels seem unsanitary, but maybe he’s trying to keep fingerprints and other bodily evidence from being collected after he departs.

Will is a constant traveler, moving from city to city, usually only staying a day or two to win some hands of blackjack by counting cards, making enough money to survive and even thrive, but never long enough to catch the attention of a nosy pit boss. At one point, he tells someone that his strategy is about managing your goals, but really it's about self-control, something Will has above all else. When we meet him, he’s in a military prison, a place he never saw himself ending up but took to quickly because of the structure, schedule and predictability. And it was in prison that he learned to count cards and figure out how to play certain card games to maximize your chances of winning. By staying a solo act and never settling down, he sees the odds of staying out of trouble in his favor.

Naturally, this way of living is ultimately compromised, and in Will's case it's by two figures. At one casino, Will meets La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who is something of a middleman for players looking for sponsors to stake them in games they can’t afford with their own money. These investors expect to get their money back and then some, so getting involved with them and losing doesn’t appeal to Will...but La Linda does. They’ve crossed paths on the circuit before, but this time, he at least hears her proposal out before turning her down. But she’s smart enough to know that she’s got at least one hook in him.

Around this time, Will also meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who is almost immediately nicknamed The Kid, because everyone in Will’s world needs a nickname. Cirk is both easy and difficult to figure out entirely. He has tracked down a mutual acquaintance of theirs, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), and when he’s on the verge of confronting this man, he spots Will and recognizes him for reasons we’re not quite clear on at first. Cirk attempts to recruit Will as well, but for a far more sinister mission that involves revenge, and it’s in these moments that we first begin to understand the depths of Will’s tragic and awful history.

In many ways, The Card Counter is about Will attempting to make up for a time in his life when he allowed himself to get out of control, to let an outside influence decide his fate. He’s not necessarily even mad at this outside influence; instead, he seems more angry at himself for letting someone else change the course of his life and get into his head in such a small yet substantial manner. The film is not about a man who plays cards in order to find stability in his life; it’s about someone who is deliberately putting himself in situations where weaker people might be thrown off course but he prevails. He enjoys playing cards because he enjoys testing himself. He sees something of himself as a younger man in Cirk, and he knows exactly what he must do to set the kid on a more righteous path—part of that requires Will to have La Linda find him a backer so he can win a nest egg at poker and walk away after winning the World Series of Poker.

Isaac gives a stunning and intense performance, and even beyond his steely good looks, your eyes refuse to look away from him here. Haddish and Sheridan are terrific as well, but something about their performances is elevated by working next to Isaac. Filmmaker Schrader juxtaposes two sequences near the end of the film—one involving Isaac at his most terrifying and one at his most gentle and sensual, and the transition is remarkable to watch. The film ends with a not-so-subtle reminder that history is bound to repeat itself and perhaps that’s how it needs to be. But it also offers some degree of hope that Will’s dangerous cycle might change if he dares to let someone in to make a connection. The Card Counter is a beautifully executed character study, set against a backdrop of games of chance, games that include friendship, love and confronting one’s  past.

The film opens theatrically on Friday.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.