Paul Schrader has made for himself a long and distinguished career in television and films, most notably “Taxi Driver,” which celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, “Raging Bull,” and 2018’s “First Reformed” amongst other films. Each film in his oeuvre has featured a character study set against the backdrop of a slow-burning story that tantalizes the brain and stimulates the senses.

If I’m going overboard with praise for Schrader, it’s because he’s managed to maintain and grow his brand of magic in his latest, “The Card Counter,” featuring Oscar Isaac.

Isaac plays William Tell, a former military interrogator turned gambler. It isn’t the transition from one . . . career to the other that makes William Tell an interesting character. Schrader imbues upon William Tell a sense of right and wrong and the influences that blur those lines, an especially critical trait while at the table.

Isaac gives himself to the part akin to his performance in “A Most Violent Year.” You can feel the pain in his eyes, the cold and calculating thoughts that course through his veins. He is as tough as they come and just as guarded.

Schrader clearly starts William Tell out as someone who is not looking for trouble. The man can read a room in an instant; not that he’s necessarily looking for an “out,” but that he can size people up quickly, which makes him a more than effective gambler. His actions attract the attention of Tiffany Haddish’s low-key La Linda. The sexual tension between Tell and La Linda is palpable, however, it is their business relationship that perks up the audience’s interest in their story – how does La Linda fit into someone’s life where they are so closed in that the wrong flop can land them in hot water?

A chance encounter with Cirk, played by Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe’s Major John Gordo, whose title is less than honorary, but no less important to the story. Cirk is the son of Tell’s infantry unit. Cirk’s motives are clear, his intentions are not, a part of Schrader’s slow-burn story building.

“The Card Counter” is a masterclass in storytelling and character development and Schrader is a shrewd visualist as well, injecting symbols in the background referencing places, sure, but also nuggets of story elements that convey just as much about the story as it does about the characters.

Tell lives a very orderly life, which is an interesting aspect because “The Card Counter” is as much about gambling as it is a road trip – Tell navigates the major casinos throughout the U.S. playing poker. He is not ambitious, playing smaller hands, not to trap an opponent, but to avoid attention.

Schrader injects a political notation with respect to Trumpists in the film, which I found hilariously ingratiating because it makes an over-the-top statement while being appropriate to the times in which we live. Tell pays it no mind; his focus is on what’s in front of him, namely Cirk (enunciated “Kirk.”) The moment Tell shows his hold card, the whole works are busted, and Isaac, internally, takes it in stride – intelligently, logically, emotionally. There is nearly no external emotion on Isaac’s face throughout the film, instead coming through action and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The Card Counter,” which played Venice opens today. If nothing else, Isaac sells the film. Schrader fans will find much to like; for the uninitiated, the film requires patience with a first-place payout worth millions.

  • The Card Counter
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