The Card Counter

The Card Counter ★★★½

“You get a job, you become the job.” That’s what a veteran cabbie named Wizard tells born-again hack Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” which Paul Schrader wrote just before he turned 30. “I envy you, your youth,” he goes on to say. “Go on, get laid. Get drunk. Do anything. You got no choice, anyway. I mean, we’re all fucked. More or less.” As Travis learns the hard way a few reels later, Schrader typically falls on the side of “more,” but not without any margin of error.

Many of the films that Schrader went on to direct himself — especially the ones whose very titles enshrine a certain vocation — have revisited the “God’s lonely man” archetype he received like communion from Robert Bresson, each of these implosive portraits cloaking their lead character’s private anguish underneath whatever profession they’ve chosen to wear like a costume. “You get a job, you become the job.” And that job allows these men to hide in plain sight as they wait for the chance to play their hand.

In that light, the most unexpected thing about “The Card Counter” is that it took Schrader this long to make a movie about a poker player. The premise is so perfect for him that the film around it almost sounds redundant; one look at the weirdos and wannabes sitting around the no-limit hold ‘em games that obscure cable networks like to air during the awful hours of the night and you’ll swear that Schrader deserves a writing credit on their lives.

They hunch around the felt and bare their souls out loud whenever the river gets wild, asking themselves the sort of rhetorical questions that Schrader’s characters tend to pose into a mirror or scribble into the diary they keep next to their drink. “Was he chasing a flush draw?” “You talkin’ to me?” “Will God forgive us?”

What’s riveting about “The Card Counter” — what makes it a fresh riff on Schrader’s usual formula, and broadly absolves it from lacking the transcendent power of a “First Reformed” — is that William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is actually trying to work out a clean answer. He’s trying to take expiation into his own hands and live to enjoy it. The math is more absolute with blackjack than hold ‘em, but a good poker player can look right through the cards, and William is nothing if not a good poker player. If he can see into someone else’s soul, maybe he can see into his own. And if he can see into his own soul, odds are that he might even be able to fix it from within the purgatory of his own existence before heaven and hell have to get involved.

~this review continues on IndieWire~