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Play it as it lays

In ‘The Card Counter,’ writer-director Paul Schrader gambles on some very big themes.

Oscar Isaac in "The Card Counter."Focus Features via AP

There are three big things going on in “The Card Counter.” Written and directed by Paul Schrader, it follows “First Reformed” (2018), which earned him an Oscar nomination for original screenplay. It was Schrader’s first. This is surprising, since he’s been writing and directing movies since the ‘70s. Schrader’s most famous screenplay? “Taxi Driver” (1976).

The first of the big things is the most straightforward: the actual movie, with its characters and plot. Oscar Isaac plays a professional gambler named William Tell. That’s a pretty funny name. It’s even funnier for someone in his line of work. Naturally, it’s not his given name, but that’s part of the third big thing.


William learned to count cards in prison. Why he was in prison is part of the second big thing. He plays for small stakes in mostly out-of-the-way places. “I prefer to work under the radar,” he explains. “I stick to modest goals.”

Isaac conveys the man’s own modesty well. William’s all business, even if it’s not much of a business. He has a stripped-down look that matches his stripped-down existence. Isaac’s narrow rectangle of a face looks slightly drawn, an effect underscored by a boxy haircut and slicked-back hair. William keeps his hands at his side as he walks. It’s an animated trudge.

Tiffany Haddish in "The Card Counter."Focus Features

Tiffany Haddish (”The Last O.G.”) is much more animation than trudge. Her character, La Linda, backs professional card players for a cut in their winnings. There’s a nice interplay between her and William. The constant sense of low-grade menace that helps make the first quarter of “The Card Counter” intriguing and effective gets put on hold, in a good way, whenever Haddish is on screen.

La Linda knows the score. That’s one of the reasons William likes her. “No explainin’ luck,” she says. Knowing the score as she does, she figures, correctly, that William has a backstory. This is where the second big thing comes in. Call it political or, maybe more accurately, moral.


It has to do with William’s involvement in a once-notorious incident. Discussing the involvement would be unfair to Schrader, since it would undercut his willingness to confront something now largely ignored that shouldn’t be. Schrader has never lacked for moral ambition, and this is an example. Yet leaving it completely unmentioned would be unfair to the viewer, since it throws the rest of the movie out of whack.

Tye Sheridan (left) and Oscar Isaac in "The Card Counter."Focus Features

At an Atlantic City casino, William meets a couple of people by chance. Gamblers know about chance, right? Screenwriters sure do. One is a man from William’s past (Willem Dafoe), the other is the son of a man also from that past. The son (Tye Sheridan, “Ready Player One”) seeks to enlist William’s help in a scheme he has. The vaguely infernal appearance of casino floors — the reddish hues, the lack of natural light and fresh air — fits right in here.

The third big thing had been percolating underneath the first one and now comes to the fore as the second big thing develops. Call it … existential? philosophical? even spiritual? Schrader gives us fair warning early on. In the voice-over, William explains that he got interested in books while in prison; and the one we see him reading is the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius.

Oscar Isaac in "The Card Counter."Focus Features

William is more than just a Stoic. It turns out that his given name is Tillich, like the Protestant theologian. Even without the cultural references, it’s pretty plain what Schrader is up to. Why do you play? La Linda asks William. “It passes the time,” he says. Later on he explains that “Poker is all about waiting.” That doesn’t apply just to poker. William says of prison, “I was in a place where I had a lot of time on my hands.” That doesn’t just apply to prison. So, yes, life is a prison, life is a casino. It is not, however, a movie, or at least not “The Card Counter.”




Written and directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 111 minutes. R (language, graphic scenes of torture)

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.