By Richard Roeper
Signal Contributing Writer
‘The Card Counter’
Whether it’s Fast Eddie Felson in “The Hustler,” Eric “The Kid” Stoner in “The Cincinnati Kid,” Bill and Charlie in “California Split,” Axel Freed in “The Gambler” or Mike McDermott and Lester “Worm” Murphy in “Rounders,” the best antiheroes in the best movies about gambling almost always have one thing in common:
They’re their own worst enemies. More often than not, they don’t know when to stop, and that’s when the stuff hits the fan.
In writer-director Paul Schrader’s brilliant, searing and stunning American noir “The Card Counter,” Oscar Isaac’s William is the antithesis of those antiheroes. William makes his living playing blackjack and poker, but he wouldn’t even call himself a gambler. He doesn’t have the self-destructive impulses of an Axel Freed or a Lester Murphy, or the ego of a Fast Eddie or the Cincinnati Kid; in fact, William prefers to stay off the grid and play for relatively low stakes. At the poker table, he relies on his methodical approach and his uncanny ability to read his opponents. As for blackjack, William’s skills at card counting — keeping track of the number of face cards and low cards in the deck, with points assigned to various cards — actually give him a mathematical edge against the house.
Isaac delivers a simmering, intense, tightly controlled performance as William Tell (a pseudonym playing off both the folk legend and the “tells” given off by weaker poker players), who provides brooding narration reminiscent of Travis Bickle in the Schrader-penned “Taxi Driver.” We learn William was in Leavenworth for 8 1/2 years, where he grew accustomed to the routine, educated himself by reading and learned how to master the art of counting cards. These days, William drives from town to town, playing poker and blackjack in midsized casinos in the Midwest and the South and along the East Coast, always wearing his hair slicked back, always clad in a neat gray-and-black ensemble — and always staying in cheap motel rooms, where he meticulously covers the furniture, the lamps, everything, in white cloth.
He’s a minimalist loner who engages in these routines in a not-always-successful effort to drown out the demons haunting his dreams and his flashbacks to the hellish time he spent as one of the soldiers who engaged in the brutal and sadistic torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. (Schrader films these scenes with a fish-eye tactic and unblinking visuals that chillingly capture the horror of it all.) These are the crimes that resulted in William’s long stint in prison.
There’s always a convention at a casino/hotel, and that’s how William comes to drop in on a security seminar hosted by one Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), a former military man turned civilian contractor who was in charge of the torture interrogation techniques in Abu Ghraib but escaped prosecution. William ducks out before Gordo spots him, but not before he’s accosted by a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan), whose father was in the same unit as William and was so damaged by his experiences that he killed himself. Tye has a half-baked plan to kidnap Gordo and torture and kill him; wouldn’t William like a piece of that?
William has another idea. He’ll take Cirk on the road with him and try to win enough money to pay off Cirk’s college debts and convince this damaged kid to abandon his plan and make something of himself. (As we’ve seen in so many films written and/or directed by Schrader, including “First Reformed,” themes of redemption and forgiveness run deep here.) This means William will have to step up his game and play for higher stakes, so he teams up with Tiffany Haddish’s La Linda, who specializes in connecting anonymous, wealthy backers with talented poker players.
William, La Linda and Cirk become an ad hoc family of sorts, with William trying to teach Cirk life lessons while William and La Linda tentatively explore a possible romance. (In one of the most beautiful scenes in any film this year, La Linda takes William to the illuminated Missouri Botanical Garden and, for a fleeting moment, he sees there’s more to life than the interiors of casinos and motel rooms.)
With spectacularly haunting original songs by Robert Levon Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club accompanying the journey, Schrader expertly captures the equal parts exciting and depressing worlds of casinos, where the slots are always jangling and the bar is always open — and when the World Series of Poker comes to town, an entire ballroom is filled with tables where players vie for winnings that go deep into six figures. Yet this is a poker movie where we really don’t see the details of hands as they’re played out, a la “Rounders.” William has a disdain for “celebrity poker,” as he calls it; he sees the game as a means to save Cirk and maybe find some inner peace for himself. This leads to a final act both shocking and perhaps inevitable, in one of the best films of the year.
Finally, a stylish and ultra-violent and wildly over-the-top action thriller about a female assassin who was trained to be a killing machine since she was a child and has an older male father-figure mentor played by a great veteran actor and wouldn’t you know it, she’s worn out her welcome and now the target is on HER back!
Why, we haven’t seen such a setup since Karen Gillan and Paul Giamatti starred in “Gunpowder Milkshake” way back in July of, well, this year, followed by “The Protege” with Maggie Q and Samuel L. Jackson in August — so it’s been nearly a month! This time around, the always compelling Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the titular character and Woody Harrelson is her wise and cunning counsel, Varrick, who has schooled Kate in the science and art of mercenary killings and can be totally trusted no matter what, right? Right? (Sidebar: Winstead also played the trained killer Helena/Huntress in “Birds of Prey,” but come on, that was back in February.)
So, yes: “Kate” is “John Wick” meets “Die Hard” meets “Collateral” meets “Kill Bill All the Volumes,” and we’ve seen it all before and you’re not going to get much in the way of original plot, but what you WILL get is a grindhouse of a good time with some bleak and wickedly sharp humor, screen-popping visuals and some pretty great fight choreography.
Set in a hyper-realistic, saturated-neon Tokyo, “Kate” stars Winstead as a cold-blooded sniper who has crossed the wrong people and has been injected with a deadly serum that will wreak grotesque havoc on her body over the course of about 15 hours before she dies, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. (Hey, in “Gunpowder Milkshake,” Gillan was jabbed with a serum, but it only paralyzed her.) As Kate weaves her way through Tokyo’s underworld with revenge on her mind, she finds an unlikely sidekick in Ani (Miku Martineau), who thinks Kate is a real life-Terminator and a true badass and just cooler than cool and doesn’t know Kate is the one who made her an orphan. (Hey, we had also had that plot development in “Gunpowder Milkshake”!)
Truth be told, Winstead as Kate does look cooler than cool, with her blood-spattered smiley face T-shirt and her oversized plastic sunglasses and a way of walking that makes her look like she’s in slow motion even when she’s not in slow motion. And when Kate isn’t slicing and shooting up dozens of interchangeable Yakuza hit men all over Tokyo or racing through the streets in a muscle car that’s so tricked out the “Fast and Furious” crew would suggest it be toned down a notch, she’s doing everything she can to protect Ani and to make her understand that just because Ani comes from gangster lineage, she doesn’t have to be part of that life. How sweet!
Harrelson can do this kind of world-weary, duplicitous character in his sleep, and he’s as good as you’d expect him to be, while the Japanese rock star/actor known as Miyavi is fantastic as a superstar hit man with a real sense of style. Martineau is terrific as Ani, who tells a roomful of hit men they’re all about to die at the hands of Kate, and when informed there are 20 of them, cracks, “Then you’re OUTNUMBERED.” Mostly, though, this is Winstead’s film to carry, and while we know there are stunt people and makeup artists and special effects and a whole lot more helping along the way, Winstead is mightily impressive in the action moments when we can see it’s really her, alternately funny and self-deprecating and desperate and determined as the clock ticks toward her inevitable death, and just plain badass throughout.