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film review

William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a former ex-military interrogator stationed in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib turned rootless gambler.Courtesy of Focus Features

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  • The Card Counter
  • Directed by Paul Schrader
  • Written by Paul Schrader
  • Starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan
  • Classification R, 109 minutes
  • Available in theatres Sept. 10

Critic’s Pick

Those keen for new work from writer-director Paul Schrader have become accustomed to the tempestuous nature of his more recent filmography – it is a fitting form for a figure who has become more than divisive with his unbridled takes on social media as of late. If anything, both of these aspects have added to the lore of his public persona.

In many ways, 2017′s critically acclaimed First Reformed felt like the penultimate act in the long-time filmmaker and screenwriter’s career. Given the director’s work in the mid-2010s was closely followed with disagreements over final cut and generally negative critical reception (such as the Bret Easton Ellis-penned The Canyons or the Nic Cage-helmed Dying of the Light), First Reformed had the feeling of a project realized more fully under Schrader’s creative control – a final wresting away of artistry from the industry powers-that-be of which Schrader has long voiced his trademark turbulent opinions. It had the clear intent and vision of an author given the privilege of fully materializing, in new and vivid ways, his continuing preoccupations with style and subjectivity.

Thankfully, this force of vision persists in his newest film, The Card Counter. Here, we follow the ominously named William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a former ex-military interrogator stationed in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib turned rootless gambler who has resigned himself to the frenetic neon purgatory of American casinos. Tell’s staid existence is roused when he is approached by a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) seeking help in executing his revenge on common foe and military colonel, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe).

When we look at Schrader’s long-established “man in a room” or “man at a table” films, The Card Counter clearly speaks to his career-long interest in the more diaristic capabilities of narrative and the ability to use story and plot as a means for mapping an expanded interiority. Within those specificities, it also feels like the sister film to First Reformed. There is an anger here, if not a fury, with our world as it stands, but also an intense need to foreground the resilient capacity of human connection. It is interesting to witness, in both films, how Schrader has utilized digital effects and editing to more effectively realize his aims with style.

Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell and Tye Sheridan as Cirk in The Card Counter.Courtesy of Focus Features

There is an urgency to these stylistic choices which ask us how we might best realize, through image and sound, both the memory and feeling of violence, of hope, of salvation for the damned. As in life, the grotesque and the beautiful exist concurrently and are each given fair weight. Memories of the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib are revisited using form in a way that violently ruptures the screen and offers no respite from its sensorial assault. Meanwhile, moments of longing, desire and promise are envisaged transcendentally, moving us to a plane of feeling that feels more embodied (almost celestially) than observant.

Isaac’s character Tell is both contemplative and demanding; he is haunted by the spectre of a violently confused American nationalism and his own capacity to act willingly as its agent. Alongside newcomer Cirk in his life, Tell is also visited upon by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), an accomplished poker player herself who is in the business of finding backers for pro players. At times, Haddish (here in a rare dramatic role) stumbles over the stylization of Schrader’s script, but her presence offers a warmth that is a welcome counter to both Isaac and Sheridan’s more rigidly intense characters.

There is an organic fallibility in her unsteady realization of La Linda, which makes a fitting partner to the profound psychic anguish Tell experiences alongside his efforts to atone for his past. While in The Card Counter we are given to ask – perhaps to fear – who we, both as individuals and collectively as a society, may or may not have the potential to become, their on-screen pairing reminds us also of the salve of communion.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)