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At The Movies: ‘Card’ accounting

The films of director-screenwriter Paul Schrader hold a lens to the world of wounded men.

There’s tortured soul Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in “Taxi Driver” (1976).

There’s heavyweight prize-fighter Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) in “Raging Bull” (1980).

And there’s that ultimate tortured soul Jesus (Willem Dafoe) in “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988).

Schrader wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for each of these films, which were all directed by Martin Scorsese.

More recently for director-screenwriter Schrader, there was the conflicted priest (Ethan Hawke) in “First Reformed” (2017), which co-starred Allentown native Amanda Seyfried, and for which Schrader received an original screenplay Oscar nomination.

Which brings us to “The Card Counter,” starring Oscar Isaac as Wiliam Tell, aka Pfc. William Tellig, a professional gambler, a poker player, who has Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) after his United States military service at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Tell was tried, convicted and imprisoned for eight years for his role at Abu Ghraib.

Tell’s independent contractor adviser at Abu Ghraib was Major John Gordo (the always intense Willem Dafoe). A young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan, who could get a supporting actor Oscar nomination), contacts Tell, claiming that Gordo was the adviser of his father, who served in the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib. Cirk’s mother left his father. Cirk’s father committed suicide. Cirk seeks revenge on Gordo.

Tell counsels Cirk to instead go back to school. He also recommends that Cirk reconnect with his mother.

Tell wants to compete in the World Series of Poker to win money to help Cirk pay off his college loan debts. Tell asks his friend La Linda (the always engaging Tiffany Haddish), who manages a stable of gamblers, to bankroll him on the casino poker circuit.

With “The Card Counter,” Schrader directs a tense psychological thriller that recalls “The Conversation” (1974) for its surveillance trade show plot point, “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965) for its tense (and seemingly accurate) poker table scenes and “The Deer Hunter” (1978) for its contemporary American soldier PTSD topic.

Speaking of which, the Abu Ghraib story line in “The Card Counter” is based on so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques allegedly used on foreign detainees at the Iraq prison circa 2004. At least two U.S. soldiers were convicted and sentenced to three years and 10 years, respectively, in prison.

Schrader uses the lead character diarist technique in “The Card Counter” similar to that in “The Taxi Driver.” Then it was Travis Bickle. Now it’s William Tell. This time, instead of the lead character festooning himself in a punk facade, the lead character’s mask is his poker face. It’s, ahem, William Tell’s overture.

Schrader maintains a suspenseful feeling throughout “The Card Counter,” collaborating again with Director of Photography Alexander Dynan (“First Reformed”).

The card counter is a metaphor for a tally of a person’s deeds or misdeeds. Memory, of remembering the cards, becomes a curse of not being able to forget one’s mistakes and moral shortcomings. Look for Oscar original screenplay and directing nominations for Schrader.

Oscar Isaac carries the film as William Tell. This is a breakout lead role for Isaac. He has the screen presence of a young George Clooney, Robert De Niro and, yes, Cary Grant. He’d make a great James Bond. Isaac’s chiseled face rarely cracks a smile. He’s contemplative. His is the ultimate poker face. Underneath, he’s wallowing in guilt. He’s unable to forgive himself for his role at the Abu Ghraib prison.

It’s a significant leading role for Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” 2013; “Ex Machina,” 2014; “A Most Violent Year,” 2014; “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens,” 2015; ”Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi,” 2017). Isaac’s memorable screen presence has never been more so than in “The Card Counter.” There’s a tension in his eyes, on his face and with his body language. Look for an Oscar actor nomination for Isaac.

In “The Card Counter,” no one wins the stakes. They spiral along the same path as tortured souls, unable to forgive others and themselves. Welcome to Paul Schrader’s world of wounded men. Take a seat at the table. Pick a card. Start counting.

“The Card Counter,”

MPAA Rated R (Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.) for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality; Genre; Run time: 1 hr., 55 min. Distributed by Focus Features.

Credit Readers Anonymous:

“The Card Counter” soundtrack music was composed by Giancarlo Vulcano and Robert Levon Been, the latter of whom also wrote several songs heard on the soundtrack. “The Card Counter” was filmed in Biloxi, Miss.

At The Movies:

“The Card Counter” was seen in the Frank Banko Cinemas, ArtsQuest Center, SteelStacks, Bethlehem. The wearing of face masks is recommended.

Theatrical Movie Box Office,

Sept. 17-19: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” continued spinning at No. 1, three weeks in a row, with $21.7 million, in 4,070 theaters, $176.8 million, three weeks, as “Free Guy” continued at No. 2 with $5.2 million, in 3,288 theaters, $108.5 million, six weeks, as director Clint Eastwood’s “Cry Macho,” in which he stars, opened at No. 3 with $4.5 million, in 3,967 theaters, one week.

4. “Candyman” stayed in place, $3.5 million, in 2,820 theaters, $53.1 million, four weeks. 5. “Malignant” dropped two places, $2.6 million, in 3,501 theaters, $9.8 million, two weeks. 6. “Copshop,” $2.3 million, in 3,005 theaters, opening. 7. “Jungle Cruise” dropped two places, $2 million, in 2,265 theaters, $112.5 million, eight weeks. 8. “PAW Patrol: The Movie” dropped two places, $1.7 million, in 2,269 theaters, $37.1 million, five weeks. 9. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” $675,000, in 450 theaters, opening. 10. ”Don’t Breathe 2” dropped three places, $665,000, in 1,003 theaters, $31.3 million, six weeks. 11. “The Card Counter” dropped three places, $440,000, in 584 theaters, $1.9 million, two weeks.

Unreel,

Sept 24:

“Dear Evan Hansen,”

PG-13: Stephen Chbosky directs Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Kaitlyn Dever in the Musical Drama. The film adaptation of the Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical is about Evan Hansen, a high school senior with Social Anxiety disorder, and the suicide of a fellow classmate.

“Apache Junction,”

R: Justin Lee directs Thomas Jane, Scout Taylor-Compton, Stuart Townsend and Victoria Pratt in the Western. A gunslinger protects a newspaper reporter.

“I‘m Your Man,”

R: Maria Schrader directs Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens, Sandra Hüller and Hans Löw in the Science-Fiction Romance Comedy. A female scientist agrees to live with a male robot during a three-week experiment.

“On These Grounds,”

Garrett Zevgetis directs the Documentary. A video of a white policeman throwing a black teenager from her school desk goes viral.

Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO COURTESY FOCUS FEATURES Oscar Isaac (Williams Tell, aka, Pfc. William Tellig), “The Card Counter.”