There are many reasons that filmmakers love casinos. The décor can have a certain degree of randomness, though constrained by the requirements of the games. The lights provide visual stimulation, even as the foley – spinning slot machine wheels, the clack of the roulette ball, a soft slap of cards – works to lull the mind. There’s always a bar at which characters can sit and drink and talk. And the lack of windows means you control the environment completely, rain or shine.
This is also what casinos love about casinos.
Writer/director Paul Schrader did not have a casino movie to his name before this one, though his chief producer on The Card Counter, Martin Scorsese, has been known to dabble. But he approaches the genre with style and grace with the story of William Tell (Oscar Isaac), ex-military, ex-con, now a full-time gambler who knows the odds and how to make the best of them.
Isaac’s character starts the film in voiceover, telling us that he spent time in prison and how he used the endless monotony to become an expert card player. (You can presumably become proficient at one skill for every 10,000 hours of jail time you serve.) He then lays out the rules of counting cards, so adroitly that I swear by the end of the scene I could have sashayed into a casino and tried it myself.
William’s life is a solitary one, but that changes when he attends a casino-based conference of security professionals, and catches a talk by another former army type, played by Willem Dafoe. After the presentation he’s approached by a kid with the odd name of “Cirk with a C” (Tye Sheridan), who wants his help in a small matter of vengeance.
At about the same time, William bumps into La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), another regular on the gambling circuit, who asks if he would consider joining her “stable,” partaking in poker tournaments with the help of a deep-pocketed benefactor, and splitting the winnings. William doesn’t do anything quickly – even his time at the blackjack table is measured and paced – but eventually he and La Linda and “the kid” have an odd quasi-friendship going on, albeit with an undertone of who’s-playing-who-here?
Schrader, whose writing credits go back to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and who directed the excellent 2017 drama First Reformed, keeps us on our toes with this one, which looks straightforward in the same way as a game of three-card Monte. And Isaac, whose credits include the Toronto festival’s Dune, TV’s Scenes From a Marriage, and the animated Addams Family 2 – and that’s just this month! – does a great job holding our attention, hinting at depths that the screenplay will gradually dole out over the film’s hour and 49 minutes.
The pace is hardly glacial, but you do have to be prepared to match the film’s deliberate stride, the odd beat of its weird electronic score, and dialogue that feels both weirdly stilted and yet somehow appropriate to these lost characters, and in particular William as he searches for a kind of redemption he didn’t find in prison.
And if you thrill to mildly insider lingo, like the fact that a racetrack/casino is called a “racino,” or that poker players are said to be in tilt when they start betting outside their comfort zone – well, The Card Counter might be a film on which you want to bet. Sure, the house always comes wins, but you won’t leave this one with empty pockets. As Isaac notes: “It’s about how much you win and how you win it.”
The Card Counter opens Sept. 10 in cinemas.
4 stars out of 5