Second Take is an occasional series that looks at movies currently playing in theaters.
Most of the movies Paul Schrader has either written or directed in his five-decade career have been about lonely, tormented men on the verge of either self-destruction or acts of horrific violence. Perhaps there's something wrong with our culture in that Travis Bickle from "Taxi Driver," Wade Whitehouse from "Affliction" or Rev. Ernst Toller from "First Reformed" are still engrossing even though their tales have familiar or even potentially worn out tropes.
The issues that plagued the Vietnam generation Travis Bickle belonged to now may have different names now, but Schrader keenly understands them in a way only someone who remembers the problems of yesterday have never left us.
With "The Card Counter," you might not peg Bill Tell (Oscar Isaac) as an Iraq War veteran. If he hadn't told you in the opening voiceover, you'd never know that he'd been to prison as well. For years, Bill has made a living by leaving as little of an impression as he can.
He shows up at the card table and plays just enough to make $700 or so and then cashes his chips before the casino's thugs show up to chase him out. Isaac's expressive eyes indicate that Bill is keenly aware of his surroundings, but Bill's blank expressions and monosyllabic responses prevent dealers and fellow players from getting a read on him.
He roams gambling houses, carefully ensuring he stays long enough to make a haul but leaves quickly enough to find another target before anyone might remember him.
He even covers the furniture in the hotels where he stays with blankets during his stay so no trace is left.
While he moves from table to table, Bill might as well be a robot, though he's not. The solitude is wearing him down, as are the deeds that sent him to prison.
When Cirk (Tye Sheridan) spots Bill on one of his haunts, the lad reveals that he's the son of a compatriot who was punished with Bill for atrocities in Abu Ghraib. Cirk's dad wound up an alcoholic, suicidal wreck, so the lad wants to kill Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the contractor who led the torture sessions.
While Bill and Cirk's father paid dearly for their participation, Gordo is now making a mint as a security expert. Bill hopes that by guiding the younger man, he can make up for all the hurt he has caused and endured. We know that there's a formidable mind hidden behind Bill's placid facade. Is there also a heart that his sins haven't managed to extinguish?
If Bill has a game face that's harder to read than hieroglyphics, Isaac manages to convey a formidable range of emotions that Bill is trying to hide. Schrader give Isaac a bare minimum of outbursts, but when they come, they are spell-binding.
Schrader has also managed to surround Isaac with supporting players who can hold their own against him. Tiffany Haddish infuses "The Card Counter" with a warmth it might not have had otherwise. Her La Linda sees Bill as an investment opportunity, but she may also be one of the few people in his world who sees him as a human being, something even Bill has trouble grasping.
Schrader's dialogue is especially sharp and judicious. After all these years, he knows he doesn't need long monologues if the story is properly written. He also finds creative ways to make the mechanics of Bill's gambling easier to understand. These touches also make Bill's behavior easier to grasp.
Like a lot of Schrader's other protagonists, Bill is walking a dangerous line, but when he and his creator are at their peaks, it's hard to look away from the high wire act.