The more things change, the more Paul Schrader stays the same.
The writer/director of "American Gigolo," "Hardcore" and the Oscar-nominated "First Reformed" is back with another drama. Like those movies, "The Card Counter" is about a man who dwells in a criminal underworld but manages to hang onto a behavioral code that he and he alone understands.
"There is a moral weight a man can accrue," says the main character, who calls himself William Tell (Oscar Isaac), shortly after being released from prison for having been one of the Army members who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib. In the slammer, he learned to count cards and, on the outside, he's slinking from casino to casino, winning small enough sums to stay under the radar.
Schrader's characters live in ethical gray areas, which means it's impossible to guess where they're going and it may take awhile for it to become clear what the movie is about. Why does William take a young drifter (Tye Sheridan) under his wing? Why does he agree to join forces with a sort of poker pimp (Tiffany Haddish), who leads him to higher-stake games? There are bigger, more ominous puzzles, too, starting with: When William checks into a new motel, why does he always cover every surface with dropcloths as if he's planning a cockfight or Jell-O wrestling or a murder?
The biggest question in all of Schrader's movies is: Why does he think we should attend to this remote person's story? His movies are character studies that feature antiheroes with righteous causes and shots at redemption. As the opening credits roll, you could put money on the notion that they'll be presented with extreme situations that reveal what they're made of.
If you're OK with a movie that keeps big secrets from you, "The Card Counter" boasts plenty of subtle pleasures. Haddish's subdued performance is fascinating. You get the sense that Schrader cast the comic because he knew we'd suspect there's a lot going on inside of her even though she's expressing almost none of it. Her scenes are mostly hushed conversations with Isaac or Sheridan in casino bars but her hidden dimensions finally emerge in a tiny gesture. The way she arches her fingers as they touch a pane of glass, when visiting someone in prison, hints that her feelings run deep.
Fingernail acting? I know that sounds crazy — and maybe it is — but "The Card Counter" is so measured and detail-oriented that Schrader forces us to search each frame for character-revealing gestures. Despite its secrets, "The Card Counter" is not a mystery. Or rather, the mystery it's interested in is not a whodunit but what led William Tell to withdraw so fully from society that makes him wish he were still in prison.
"He's a mystery. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing," says Haddish's character.
It's definitely good for the quietly challenging movie. True to the complex motivations of Schrader's haunted protagonists, "The Card Counter" ends with an acknowledgment that, in a confusing world, doing good may even require a person to do something bad.
The Card Counter
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: R for graphic nudity, bloody violence and strong language.
Theater: Wide release.