The Card Counter (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)
Updated: Sep 2
THE CARD COUNTER (2021)
Starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe, Ekaterina Baker, Joel Michaely, Billy Slaughter, Amye Gousset, Marlon Hayes, Adrienne Lau, Calvin Williams, Hassel Kromer, Dylan Flashner, Fran Robertson, Alexander Babara, John Ceallach, Rachel Michiko Whitney, Britton Webb, Rob Eubanks and Bobby C. King.
Screenplay by Paul Schrader.
Directed by Paul Schrader.
Distributed by Focus Features. 112 minutes. Rated R.
Writer/director Paul Schrader’s greatest skill as a storyteller is his ability to tell nuanced character portraits of very damaged people. It is also, perhaps, his biggest fault as well, at least in terms of becoming a hugely popular commercial filmmaker. He is too true to his character’s faults, too dark to write a Hollywood blockbuster in the modern day – although many of his past screenplays are classics, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Blue Collar, American Gigolo and Cat People.
However, he hasn’t really written a hit film since The Last Temptation of the Christ in 1988. A few of his films since then have gained critical love – like Affliction, Auto Focus, Bringing Out the Dead and First Reformed – but barely anyone saw them.
He may not be a crowd pleaser in a Hollywood system which relies on superhero blockbusters, but as a cult favorite, he is aces.
Schrader comes from the dark, jaded Hollywood class of the 1970s, back when the story was the thing, when an unhappy ending was not frowned upon, when films took chances and had unlikable heroes. (It’s not a coincidence that Schrader has often worked with Martin Scorsese, who is an executive producer on this film as well.)
The character being studied is a professional card player, dramatically named William Tell. (That is not his real name, but it is close enough, and it turns out that he has reasons to hide his real name.) Oscar Isaac plays Tell as an eternally reserved man, playing all of his emotions exceedingly close to his vest, only occasionally letting even hints of the real man inside bubble up to the surface. He is a blank slate – he even takes all art off the walls of any hotel he stays in, hanging sheets on the walls to make everything completely plain and sterile.
Tell has found a loophole that he follows strictly; casinos don’t mind people counting cards to win… unless they win too much. Therefore Tell travels from town to town, hitting local casinos and winning modest amounts before quitting. He also refuses to be comped to stay at the casinos, instead staying in run down local motels and hotels. This way, he figures, he is not on camera and the casino can’t keep an eye on him.
He does not seem to get much enjoyment from gambling, nor does he profit all that much from it. It’s just something he does.
Perhaps he is running from his past because we quickly learn that Tell has a secret. He has just spent years in jail because he was one of the military guards in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. He was in pictures torturing the Middle East prisoners, and while the higher-ups in the torture paid no price for their actions, many of the soldiers they told to do the atrocities ended up going to jail.
Schrader films the periodic flashbacks to Abu Ghraib in a disorienting wide angle, constantly moving and at the same time marinating in the horror and squalor of the situation.
Out of prison, Tell finds himself in the particular hamster wheel of his life. Everything changes when two people enter his life. One is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). She is also part of the poker underworld – she brokers agreements between big money investors and players like Tell. She recognizes Tell as a card counter quickly and tries to convince him to let her get him someone to stake him, although he would have to change his strategy and try to get higher winnings. At first Tell rebukes the idea, but they become friends and he even finds himself having feelings for her, something he thought he had left far behind.
The other newcomer is Cirk (pronounced Kirk but with a C, he explains to everyone). Played by Tye Sheridan, Cirk is the son of one of Tell’s fellow Abu Ghraib guards. His father also went to prison, and eventually committed suicide because he couldn’t handle the shame. Tell meets Cirk at a speech by a military contractor named Gordo (Willem Defoe) that Tell decides to sit in on in some mid-west casino.
It turns out to not be so random. Gordo was the man who trained the Abu Ghraib guards in the ways of torture. While many of the soldiers went to jail, Gordo did no jail time. He just got richer, and now does speeches at conservative conventions where he portrays himself as a war hero.
Cirk was there because he was plotting revenge on Gordo, wanting to kill the man who at least indirectly killed his father. Tell takes the young man under his wing, telling La Linda he will go on the poker tour so that he can make enough money to pay Cirk’s debts, also trying to dissuade him from taking the law in his own hands.
The Card Counter looks at some very damaged people and some very dark moments in recent history. It’s tough viewing, but it is also a fascinating story with some extraordinary acting. It will not be for everybody, but for those who can recognize its cynical world view, the movie is a stunner.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 10, 2021.