By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Writer/director Paul Schrader definitely has a dark side, and every film he contributes is a testament to this prominent facet. His latest film, The Card Counter, wears this dark, tormented soul on its sleeve for the most part, but also comes across as a reflection of a filmmaker grasping for hope in horrible world. Through his lead character, Schrader shows a filmmaker who wishes his characters can rise above the degeneration of everything in this world that threatens to bring everyone down to the level of bottom feeders.

Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell, a professional gambler who knows his trade well enough to survive and continue doing what he has practiced for some time. Prior to his new career, William served in the military and eventually found himself working as an interrogator/torturer of prisoners held by the U.S. government. When the government finally decided to crack down on these extreme, inhuman measures, William, along with several of his colleagues, were held accountable for their attrocities and forced to do some time in a military prison. While serving his sentence, Tell learned the skills to become a modestly successful professional card player, honing the crafts needed to win in Blackjack and Poker.

Upon his release, Tell focuses this mastery into traveling all over the United States winning money in the country’s various casinos. Keeping a mostly low profile, Tell gets enticed into becoming a more prominent and recognizable player after a couple of fateful events pursuade him to go against his usual reservations. First of all, a big money poker scout by the name of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) tries to recruit William to become a team player for some interested investors. However, it is William’s encounter with a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan), someone connected with his dark past who galvanizes him to pursue a more ambitious endeavor in his work.

Written and directed by Paul Schrader, The Card Counter is a fascinating and gripping dark tale that acts as a compelling character study of a man struggling with the dark sins of his past. Schrader not only show impressive skills in his presentation of the story, but his writing of the story reflects a filmmaker that can still deliver films that are powerful, emotional, and often disturbing. My main complaint about this movie is that some of the darker, more intense and potent moments come across as watered down and restrained. This comes as a big surprise to me, because a lot of Schrader’s previous films never hold back when it came to unnerving and frightening elements. Still, as far as this year is concerned, this film is genuinely remarkable and should be considered one of the better movies made this year.

This is not only thanks to the great story telling, character development and direction by Schrader, the actors in the movie give such incredible performances that are worthy of recognition. As William Tell, Oscar Isaac gives what is arguably one of his finest performances so far. Isaac has such an amazing grasp for the character and all of his facets that he is definitely an inspiration to anyone pursuing a career in acting. As La Linda, Tiffany Haddish gives a solid dramatic turn that exudes her natural charm and shows a level of restraint for which she is not that well known. As Cirk, Tye Sheridan gives a tremendous performance as William’s new menteee that seriously needs guidance and wisdom from someone who has experience.

Now even though The Card Counter might not be Paul Schrader’s best film, it is most certainly a remarkable work that deserves much admiration and respect. The filmmaker simply knows how to capture a feeling of torment, despair, and disspiritedness and immerses his protagonists in these emotions. His characters struggle to do their best to rise above the lowest levels of human existence, which is a genuine struggle a lot of us face in real life. His films reflect the fact that there is no perfect path or strategy to overcome these obstacles, but we often have to embrace what we abhor in order to keep us going.

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