Dir: Paul Schrader. Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe, Alexander Babara, Bobby C King. 15, 112 minutes.

Oscar Isaac has a stare that could burn right through the door of a bank vault. It’s put to frighteningly good use in The Card Counter – hollowed out of that usual, seductive allure, and stripped of its humanity. Those dark irises become, instead, a portal to the absolute depths of hopelessness. We’ve seen him deliver this kind of performance before, most notably in 2014’s A Most Violent Year, but the shock of how quickly and wordlessly he can shift his demeanour never lessens.

In fact, those eyes alone speak with greater fluency on the soullessness of America than the rest of The Card Counter. That’s despite it having been written and directed by Paul Schrader, the man who so famously conjured Travis Bickle out of the grungiest recesses of his psyche. The film casts Isaac as William Tillich – who goes by the alias William Tell – a former soldier who spent eight years in prison for the torture of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib. He spent that time learning to count cards. Now he drifts through the country’s hotels and casinos, never betting too high so that he doesn’t draw the attention of others (card counting may not be illegal, but it certainly isn’t popular either).

Tillich dresses impeccably – a real Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid, with a soft streak of grey in his hair. But the casinos are ugly, filled with sweaty-faced, grunting men parading their fragile little egos. The motels he stays in are as grotty as they come, and he has an odd habit of wrapping each piece of furniture in a white sheet, as if he’s already called a time of death on the place. These are all just rituals, futile attempts to find some sense of purity and control over that which has been poisoned beyond repair – the central theme to all of Schrader’s work.

A small spark of possible redemption comes in the form of Cirk (Tye Sheridan), whose father was dishonourably discharged for his part in torture at Abu Ghraib. Tillich and Cirk’s father were the fall guys, while men who trained them – like Major John Gordon (Willem Dafoe) – now live cosy lives of conferences and speaking engagements. Cirk wants revenge. His father died by suicide. He knows he won’t find peace in the system, so he’s willing to get blood on his hands. Tillich tries desperately to yank Cirk off that path to self-destruction, knowing full well that no victory lies at its end.

Tiffany Haddish – a little too warm and grounded for this film – turns up as a love interest for Tillich

(Focus Features)

Schrader’s upbringing in a strict Dutch Calvinist household has always informed his work to some degree – sometimes explicitly, as in his last film, First Reformed, about a priest losing his faith in the face of irreversible environmental damage. Here, there’s a touch of predestination to how Tillich views his world. He is one of those who God has damned to eternal suffering, and so his existence now is just a prelude to hell, a placeholder before death.

But there’s something in the shade of Schrader’s cynicism recently, here and in First Reformed, that I’ve struggled with. A slight tilt in the perspective, I’d say. As he’s tried to adapt his voice to suit a more apocalyptic world – his last film featured eco-terrorists with suicide vests; here he flashes back to American war crimes by using the fish-eye lens to create a nightmarish tapestry – his characters have become a little stiff and narrow-focused in their self-flagellation.

If we’re meant to be trapped inside Tillich’s guilt, is it not telling that Schrader never lets us really see the faces or know the names of his victims? Meanwhile, Tiffany Haddish – a little too warm and grounded for this film – turns up as a love interest for Tillich. But, much like the pregnant congregant played by Amanda Seyfried in First Reformed, she’s a particularly hollow rendition of feminine innocence and salvation. The Card Counter is claustrophobic, certainly – but not always in the right ways.

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