Are there sins that are unforgivable? And is there somehow a chance that even the doomed may find forgiveness and live a fulfilling life?
Redemption is the long game in renowned writer and director Paul Schrader’s THE CARD COUNTER, which tells the story of William Tell (Oscar Isaac), an ex-military interrogator turned gambler who travels from casino to casino, working the poker tables.
As the title suggests he counts cards, but not in a flashy or obvious way. In fact, his goals are ‘modest’ – as he tells gambling agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) when she tries to recruit him to her stable of high-rolling professional players – and once achieved, he moves on to the next place.
Tortured by memories of his past as a prison guard in Iraq, Tell lives a carefully controlled life. When he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the troubled son of a man who served alongside him in the military, he sees it as an opportunity for redemption and atonement. So, he concocts a plan to mentor Cirk as an opportunity to forgive himself – and be forgiven in turn.
Told with Schrader’s trademark cinematic intensity, THE CARD COUNTER features riveting, rock-solid performances from Haddish and Sheridan, while Dafoe is unsurprisingly excellent in a small but key role.
However, the movie belongs to critically acclaimed and award-winning Isaac, and to Schrader’s terrifying script. Isaac explains what drew him to the role: “The first time I read it I didn’t even understand it totally. I wasn’t sure what was happening. Then I read it the second time and it started to make more sense to me, and I think that’s what attracted me to it. There was so much mystery and so much tension in what was happening, and I couldn’t anticipate what was going to happen next with him as a character. I thought that it was just a really fascinating challenge.”
Schrader is perhaps best known as the screenwriter of intense cinematic classics such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. But his work as director is equally relentless and he is not generally known as an optimistic storyteller. As such, THE CARD COUNTER is not only a dark tale that encapsulates key themes of loneliness, isolation and redemption, but also an impressive character study.
“Over the years I’ve developed my own genre of films, and they typically involve a man alone in a room wearing a mask, and the mask is his occupation,” says Schrader. “He could be a taxi driver, a drug dealer, a gigolo, a reverend, and I take that character and run him alongside a larger problem, personal or social. For this film, I had to come up with a profession for someone who is waiting, and who is living a sort of non-existence. Gambling felt like the perfect milieu. With poker, you can play for days before that magic hand comes. Every few weeks or so, something good might occur, but mostly it’s a waiting game.”
As for the inspiration for Tell’s dark character, he says: “Contradiction is the heart and essence of character… So, I don’t see him as a dark character, I just see him as typically complex and contradictory as we all are.”
Isaac’s Tell is superbly supported by Emmy and Grammy award winner Haddish, who has established herself as one of the most sought-after comedic actresses and performers worldwide. She prepared for her role by hanging out and gambling in several casinos before they started production in early 2020.
“This world is so full of mystery, and there’s so many different types of people and personalities passing through these casinos,” she says. “Gamblers are fascinating people if you take the time to sit down at the table and talk to them. They come from all walks of life, but the one thing they have in common is they’re out to win.”
The musical score and soundtrack were handled by Robert Levon Been, lead singer and songwriter for the group Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. He worked closely with Schrader to write the tender, incantation-like songs that serve as an alternate narrative in the film.
Schrader uses THE CARD COUNTER to examine broader horrors, delving deep into the theme of redemption. The film’s fascination lies in unpacking the psyche of its main character, and how he deals with the choices before him.
The film, locally distributed by Filmfinity Pty (Ltd.) and will be released in South African cinemas on 22 October 2021.
Rotten Tomatoes – Certified fresh 87%.
Led by Oscar Isaac’s gripping performance, THE CARD COUNTER adds another weighty chapter to Paul Schrader’s long inquiry into man’s moral responsibility.
Watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHhJ1G3kdbU
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THE CARD COUNTER