The Card Counter

The Card Counter ★★★½

Only slightly less religiously tortured than First Reformed, writer-director Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter follows an ascetic gambler (he covers the furniture in his dumpy hotel rooms with white sheets to create an anonymous cell; he limits his winnings to a certain, modest amount) who is trying to atone for the sins of his past. Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, the gambler, while Tye Sheridan and Tiffany Haddish play two strangers who make their way into William’s otherwise monastic orbit. (Isaac is excellent, as usual, but Schrader never finds a way to make the differing energies of the other two actors work in this Bresson-by-way-of-Casino milieu.) Without an actual pastor to do the work for him, as in First Reformed, Schrader lays on the theology a bit thickly: William has a back tattoo contrasting “providence” and “grace;” there is talk of justification; William observes that a great poker player will “see right into your soul.” In line with its lead character’s name, the movie is a big tell. But I’m probably more, um, forgiving of this sort of material than most. And as director, Schrader lends the film a harrowing, claustrophobic style, from the occasional, ominous breathing heard on the sound design to the abstractly wide lens employed in the flashbacks to William’s crimes. With The Card Counter, Schrader offers another self-flagellating portrait of a man who’s experienced—and enacted—great sin, struggling to perceive anything akin to divine grace.