The Card Counter doesn't seem like it should be as tough a nut to crack as it is. It's the story of a man, William Tillich (Oscar Isaac), who was involved in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in the 2000s, served time in prison for his actions, and now wanders like a ghost from casino to casino, making a living as a small-time gambler; very early on, he crosses paths with a young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), whose father was also an Abu Ghraib torturer who has since killed himself, so now Cirk wants revenge on John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the civilian contractor who trained William and Cirk's dad and others. Seeing a chance to better another human life and perhaps do at least something to briefly quiet the howls of a tormented conscience, William takes the boy under his wing and journeys around America with him, winning high-stakes poker games to finance Cirk's future. It sounds like a perfectly straightforward character drama about a person with a bad past trying to do good; it sounds downright sentimental, in fact.

That it is not perfectly straightforward nor sentimental is at least in part because The Card Counter was written and directed by Paul Schrader, a filmmaker not especially prone to uplifting tales of unambiguous redemption. I'm not going to say it would be better if it was that theoretical other film by a less rigorously pessimistic, moralstic filmmaker; most likely, it would just have a different set of flaws. That being said, the flaws that show up The Card Counter as it exists are sometimes quite tough to work around, not least because they can't always be readily disentangled from - or even differentiated from - the strengths. Which are just as undeniable as the flaws, to be fair.

Might as well start with the biggest one - I do not know if I mean flaw or strength. Putting Abu Ghraib in the backstory of William's lonely, nomadic present (he now goes by the professional nickname "William Tell") is a massive, massive choice. It immediately shifts this from the story of a taciturn antihero with skeletons in his closet, as sturdy a stock figure as you could hope for, into a story about the United States of America reeling its way through the 21st Century, lost without its old code of morality and scrambling to find a new one that will give it some ability to function as the world crumbles. Throughout the movie, as William keeps silently plowing his way through increasingly prominent poker tournaments, he keeps crossing paths with a showy, awful braggart of a professional player, a wiry white dude called Mr. USA (Alexander Babara) who wears tacky stars & stripes shorts and a tank top, and is accompanied by two guys with posters who chant "USA! USA!" every time he knocks out another player. Mr. USA is mostly just part of the wallpaper, showing up in the distant background of hotel lobbies out of focus, or buried in massive wide shots of dozens of players, identifiable only by the sound of his chanting yahoos, but he becomes an extremely irritating presence as the film slowly winds on, a figure of thoughtless, cheap braggadocio that stands in repulsive contrast to William's almost monastic approach to life and gambling. And, this is, like, a fucking obvious bit of symbolism - Mr. USA the brutish, artless thug, all the more aggravating since he almost always wins. So Schrader has absolutely put some thought into what it means for Abu Ghraib and the Bush-era torture program to be such a prominent feature of his movie.

But does that thought translate into the actual experience of watching The Card Counter? I really don't know. Generally speaking, the film is on its firmest ground when it is focused the most minutely on poker and the process by which William mechanically approaches the game and himself, and pretty much anything that's put around that central, robotic core ends up making the film feel messy. And maybe some of the mess is the point, but surely not all of it. With only three characters to keep track of, really - William, Cirk, and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who runs gamblers on behalf of the moneymen and manages William's journey through the poker tournaments - it's devastating to the film that one-third of them just doesn't come across: Sheridan's performance as Cirk is weirdly stilted and insincere and almost completely devoid of emotional resonance, which is especially bad given how much of the film's emotion is meant to focus around him. Haddish, whose casting in such a tightly-wound, mostly-serious role is the most interesting choice the film makes, which is by no means to say it is the best, has the most scrawnily-conceived character and she does a shocking amount to make La Linda feel like a credible human and warm presence, and Isaac, who is actively great, does a lot to smooth over the places where the script leaves William feeling like a collection of ideas with a unifying personality and motivations to be inserted later. But between the two of them, they can't always keep things propped up in the absence of that third leg.

That being said, Isaac steadily bears the weight of Schrader's opaque, sidelong examination of guilt and pain remaining constantly, effortfully buried. It's not news that he's a very good actor, but he has spent an awfully long time wandering in the wilderness of studio films that underuse him in ill-fitting genres. The Card Counter is the best film role he's had in some years, or at least the one that offers him the most places to dig into unspoken currents of emotion, using a heavy-lidded stare, always a bit too long and with too little blinking, to create a very fraught, tense feeling of a man who's barely restraining himself. Barely restraining what is of course the film's question, and again, there's a level on which William - heck, on which the entirety of the film's screenplay - feels more like a collection of individual words and phrases about the spiritual and moral catastrophe of the U.S. torture program than an actual drama. There's a lot that doesn't cohere: the big one is that the idea of William being a professional gambler never feels like it has anything at all to do with his past as a torturer, not even as symbolism or metaphor. But there are other places where the story feels constructed more out of holes than plot material. Cirk and William meeting up, traveling together, William deciding to help the young man financially - this all makes sense because the idea of the broken down loner who wants to do something good in the world is a clichΓ© we have ready to hand from lots of other films (including Schrader's own First Reformed, his most recent project), not because The Card Counter actually depicts these things in a way that makes them seem to follow on each other.

Even so, for as much as the film feels like a collection of notions rather than a completed work, the notions are frequently very astonishing. The delirium of the extremely wide-angle lens cinematographer Alexander Dynan uses to showcase the inside of Abu Ghraib as a place so distended and fish-eyed that it almost seems to wrap back around itself, for example, is a potent nightmare of an image even before we see Dafoe transformed into some sort of revolting apelike mutant, all dangling arms and stubby legs. Nothing else in the film is like it; but that's true of almost everything best here, all the way to a climax that is such a brazen lift of Robert Bresson's "storytelling through offscreen sound" aesthetic - this is a particularly Bresson-heavy film, even by the standards of American cinema's most voracious Bresson acolylte - that it's hard not to be impressed by the minimalist bravura even as it all comes off as somewhat trite.

The film does end up having some unity, though, even if all of its individual pieces seem to be flying off in different directions, if only because it ends up being very repetitive in how it shots its many casino locations and how it lays its small soundtrack of just a few song that get used and reused. It feels like one thing happening many times, enough so that Cirk at one point even comments on it, and this at least makes it feel like singular object. I still harbor a rather strong suspicion that The Card Counter needed more time in the oven, and that it's more satisfying as an exercise in watching certain specific ideas about the main character play themselves out rather than as an attempt to depict that character as any sort of concrete whole, but maybe the whole point of the thing is that he's not a whole person, that the jumble of singular ideas is the point. I can't say that the film is overall very satisfying, but it's got a lot of moving parts, and I'm not ready to just throw that away even if I think some of those parts are redundant and some have nothing to do with the rest of the machine. It's not a film of small and safe ambitions, at the very least.