“The Card Counter” is the Oscar Isaac Show. So much so that it’s almost as though there is no one else in it.
He dominates the picture thoroughly, but quietly. Co-stars Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan are present to bounce off him, to engage with him, but never to challenge him for screen time or to shift the picture’s focus away from him.
His is a strange performance. So subdued. So interior. So quintessentially typical of a lead character in a Paul Schrader picture.
In fact it’s really writer-director Schrader who is Isaac’s true co-star in “The Card Counter.” A product of a strict Calvinist upbringing in Michigan, the filmmaker’s trademarks — guilt, redemption, a soul in torment — are all here.
Isaac’s character, William Tell, is, as the title declares, a professional gambler, a habitué of casinos, an expert at counting cards. As is usually the case with Schrader’s characters, Tell has a dark past. He’s a former U.S. military torturer, a man who learned that fearsome trade at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq during the Iraq War. He served 8 ½ years in the Leavenworth penitentiary for that crime, where he had lots of time to learn the esoteric ins and outs of card counting. Since then, soaked in guilt, he’s wandered the U.S. Aimless, rootless, friendless. Alone.
He carries his solitude with him everywhere, and Isaac makes you feel his anomie every second he’s on screen.
While he’s as demon-ridden as most prominent characters from past Schrader screenplays — think Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” Nick Nolte’s anguished small-town lawman in “Affliction” and Willem Dafoe’s insomniac drug dealer in “Light Sleeper” (the latter two written and directed by Schrader) — his anguish is rigorously contained. Those other guys, throbbing with pain, are exhibitionists compared to Tell. That makes him singularly fascinating. He conveys so much by seemingly doing so little.
He works hard at effectively creating anonymity. He never bets large amounts, wins consistently, and always knows when to hold ’em and especially when to fold ’em.
His goals are, by his own admission, “modest.” He frequents generic motels and then carefully wraps all their furniture in bedsheets and removes pictures from the walls to turn those interior spaces into anonymous places.
His wardrobe is all of a monochromatic piece. He favors black jackets or, when his mood lightens, gray ones.
The casinos he gambles in are also generic. Director of photography Alexander Dynan uses a lighting scheme that can best be described as subtly oppressive, almost shroudlike, pressing down on the casino scenes, muting their garishness. And Isaac’s eyes are often tinged with shadows, masking Tell’s emotions.
Sheridan’s character, a young man whose abusive father was also a torturer at Abu Ghraib, has researched Tell and knows his backstory. He wants to recruit Tell in a scheme to capture and kill the man who taught Tell and his father the torturer’s trade. That sinister figure is played by Dafoe, who is practically a fixture in Schrader’s movies.
Haddish’s character, a departure from her usual comic roles, is a kind of gambling agent who wants Tell to up his game and play for bigger paydays. She offers to stake him money to fuel his ascent into the bigger leagues.
These characters, with their separate agendas, are intended to awaken Tell and to propel him to end his self-effacement. However, they’re not very well developed (particularly Haddish’s role). With his quiet intensity, Isaac puts them in the shade.