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Oscar Isaac’s Masterclass in Playing the Stoic Man with a Dark Past

‘The Card Counter,’ Paul Schrader’s riveting poker thriller, is spiritually similar to his earlier classics. But the acclaimed actor makes its themes of guilt and revenge feel seductively new.

In movies, there’s something endlessly fascinating about the stoic man with a dark past. Often, he’s good at his job — usually something highly specialized, something you and I couldn’t do — and also a bit intimidating in his demeanor, refusing to let the mask slip. What he doesn’t reveal about himself only makes us lean in with more curiosity. This impervious man is hiding something — something that must be so juicy considering how hard he’s trying to keep it a mystery. We flatter ourselves by seeing something of ourselves in him. We’d like to think we could be that enigmatic — we’d like to think our secrets are interesting enough to warrant being the subject of a major motion picture.

Filmmaker Paul Schrader has spent his career writing about such men. From Taxi Driver to American Gigolo to Light Sleeper to First Reformed, his protagonists stand alone, as if ordinary life is too painful or constraining for them to endure. They pursue unconventional professions that allow them to be solitary, and they often chronicle their obsessive thoughts in a journal, the only friend they really have. In a modern world that’s redefining the rigid rules around masculinity, there’s something startlingly old-school about the way Schrader views men. They’re tormented and they’re wounded and they carry their misery around like a crown of thorns. They suffer in a macho fashion.

Often, his movies can be as anguished as his characters, making them feel more like bracing rites of passage than what you’d call a good time at the multiplex. But by his standards, his latest is practically rip-roaring. The Card Counter, which opens September 10th, doesn’t skimp on its hero’s torment — he’s another solitary man who can’t forget the bad things he’s done — but it’s also incredibly entertaining, although at its core is a somber reminder of an American sin most would like to forget. The macho misery hasn’t dissipated, but here it’s shoehorned into a fleet poker drama. 

Oscar Isaac is the perfect actor to play William Tell, an expert card-player. Through voiceover, he explains his art, detailing how counting cards allows him to tilt the house’s advantage to his own — just so long as he doesn’t overstay his welcome at casinos and they catch on to what he’s doing. The trick is to win small sums and not to attract too much attention — you get greedy, that’s when you get caught. Always dressed up at the table — his tie just right, and his hair impeccably slicked back — Tell makes poker-playing look like ballet. Film has long been in love with card-players, and Tell is as alluring as the many cinematic practitioners who came before. He’s not self-destructive and he’s not foolhardy. He has a system, and the system works.

But his clearly made-up name is a giveaway that he’s not entirely on the level — there’s something that he doesn’t want people knowing about him. Soon, we find out what that is. He developed his card-counting skill during a decade-long prison sentence, and that prison sentence was due to things he did in the military while stationed at Abu Ghraib. You remember Abu Ghraib — it was in the news in the mid-2000s. Well, the world moved on, Tell served time, and now he’s out and trying to move on as well. 

But things never work out smoothly in a Schrader film. Often, the tormented protagonist is confronted by an innocent younger person who needs his help, which requires him to reconnect with some repressed part of himself. And in The Card Counter, that younger person is Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who randomly runs into Tell at a security conference being held at the casino where Tell is gambling. That conference includes a PowerPoint presentation being run by a man named John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Tell and Cirk have never met, but the young man goes up to the gambler: “You remember him?” Tell certainly does — Gordo is connected to Tell’s dark past, and to Cirk’s as well. 

Oscar Isaac as William Tell and Tye Sheridan as Cirk. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / ©2021 Focus Features, LLC

You would think that this would send The Card Counter into the terrain of a revenge thriller. But that’s not what happens — not exactly. Instead, Tell just keeps playing cards, accepting an invitation to be bankrolled by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a gambling agent who thinks he’s got the talent to make it to the World Series of Poker. Tell and La Linda become a de facto family looking after this directionless teenager who’s still mourning the death of his father to suicide. But even so, Tell only opens up so much. A man who goes into every hotel room and immediately wraps up the table, lamps and chairs in bedspreads — no fingerprints left behind — wants to go through life undetected. 

Isaac has often conveyed a wiry intensity on screen, but in The Card Counter he gets to tap into Schrader’s particular brand of edgy outsider. And where previous actors have exuded their characters’ inner torment — I’m thinking specifically of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and Ethan Hawke in First Reformed — Isaac also makes room for Tell’s existential cool, calmly drifting through a milieu that’s often populated by showboats and big-talkers. (Amusingly, one of Tell’s constant competitors on the poker circuit is a loudmouth American patriot whose fans chant “U!S!A! U!S!A!” after he wins — which is all the more ridiculous because the dude’s not even from this country. It’s all an elaborate act.) 

Tell has more than a little in common with David Mamet’s protagonists, who are often supremely assured in their skillfulness, and for much of The Card Counter it’s a pleasure to watch Isaac simply rule his domain. Schrader’s protagonists can be dangerous malcontents, but here there’s a flirty courtship at play — Tell seduces us the way he seduces La Linda, who goes from backing him to wanting to fuck him. He’s not quite an outlaw, but this strange universe of professional card-players is like a wild, wild west of outcasts who don’t quite fit in. But Tell figures he has the upper hand on his competition. He doesn’t just dress better and speak more eloquently than his rivals — he’s more composed, more disciplined. And because he’s portrayed by Oscar Isaac, he’s sure as hell more handsome than them, too. 

Tiffany Haddish as La Linda. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / ©2021 Focus Features, LLC

Not that Tell doesn’t suffer the way all Schrader men do. He’s got that journal, and he puts his stinging memories down on the page, many of them involving what he saw at Abu Ghraib, back when he was a soldier following orders. But Tell thinks that his new life will help him escape his past. By trusting in the cold, hard math of card-counting — by keeping track of the fluctuating odds that are solely dependent on what cards get played — he thinks he can win at poker and, also, push back the messy uncertainty that landed him in prison in the first place. Mentoring Cirk, falling for La Linda — he’s constantly weighing the probabilities, wanting to be sure he comes out on top. Schrader men often resort to violence — against others or themselves — to quell the voices screaming in their head. Tell puts his faith in a straight flush. 

The Card Counter is riveting as Schrader shows us around the milieu of professional poker, introducing us to three characters who, we suspect, probably couldn’t cope in any other environment. They’re either hiding from society or rejecting it — they can only really be themselves here. This is Haddish’s best dramatic role, and Sheridan gives off the air of a hungry kid who’s seeking something he’s never gonna find. But The Card Counter is Isaac’s movie, and he only lets us see as much of Tell as he so desires, always keeping us at a remove. Throughout the film, you’ll wonder when Gordo is gonna come back around — Schrader couldn’t have possibly introduced that subplot without planning on following it up, right? — and when he does, there’s a preciseness to the resolution that feels wholly appropriate to who Tell is. Everything he does, even revenge, has to be handled just so. 

The appeal of stoic men with a dark past is that we’re suckers for the romantic notion that we’re all carrying scars and secret demons — we flatter ourselves into believing  the mild obstacles we’ve faced in life somehow confer upon us a dramatic grandeur that makes us far more compelling than our placid surfaces might suggest. No matter how much of a cautionary tale Travis Bickle is, I remember guys in college who liked emulating his anti-social attitude, wearing his antagonism as a hip guise. Stoic men with dark pasts somehow have a deeper understanding of the way life works — they’ve seen some shit, and now they can’t go back to polite society. We want to live vicariously through their tortured, world-weary outlook.

What makes The Card Counter so effective is that Schrader and Isaac give us a man who’s legitimately done bad things — and done them, ostensibly, for his country — and no matter how well he performs at the card table, he can’t erase that shame. It’s a sly twist of the knife that Schrader gets us to relate to Tell, a soldier who participated in torture because he thought it was the right thing to do. The sharp outfits Tell wears now won’t make that old ugliness go away. You’ll be seduced by this suave, charming character, but he’d do anything to trade places with you. He can’t live with the hand he’s been dealt.