Credit: @thecardcounter on Instagram
Credit: @cinetecabologna on Instagram
Writer-director-film critic Paul Schrader has received an Oscar nod and won several awards — the latest is a lifetime achievement honor in Zurich — for his slow-burn films like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Light Sleeper (1992), and American Gigolo (1980). Known for his tortured soul antiheroes, Schrader’s latest film The Card Counter is another chapter in the filmmaker’s fascination with morality
The Card Counter tells the tale of ex-con William Tell (Oscar Isaac). A drifting low-level gambler, Tell spends his days bouncing from casino floor to casino floor. Despite being a gifted player, Tell always bets small and never plays to win too much. He never goes into overdrawn monologues that explain he’s haunted. Instead, his actions and his environment do. This is Tell’s story, and we see the world as he does. Here, bright casinos are shadowy. Instead of overacting his grief, Isaac presents us with almost soulless eyes. Just like how his humble depiction of Poe Dameron grounded the character, Isaac’s restrained portrayal of Tell is effective.
Of course, The Card Counter still has to have a leading lady, a foil, and a sidekick. In this film, Tiffany Hadish’s charming La Linda is Tell’s love interest. A gambling agent of sorts, La Linda works with “investors” who bankroll players for a cut. Naturally, she invites Tell into this venture but he declines. Soon, we find out that Tell is a talented player because he learned how to count cards during his eight-year prison stint. His game of choice is blackjack, mainly because he can best utilize his card counting abilities within a standard blackjack strategy. It’s during one such casino night that Tell encounters the aforementioned foil and sidekick.
While gambling, Tell sees retired Major John Gord (Willem Dafoe), who puts Tell on edge. As Tell exits, he encounters the young Cirk Baufort (Tye Sheridan). Though he doesn’t recognize the boy, Baufort seems to know who Tell really is. Tell is really PFC William Tillich, who served in the military with Baufort’s late father. His participation in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse is why he was imprisoned. From here, more of the grisly pieces of Tell’s puzzle fall into place. His near-ascetic approach and his fake name are a reflection of his guilt. Baufort wants Tell to join him in his revenge against Gordo—the private contractor who “taught” the soldiers their torture techniques. Baufort believes that Gordo is responsible for his father’s suicide.
But Tell declines. Instead, he offers Baufort a chance to win enough money from gambling to start a new life. It’s at this point that Tell finally tells La Linda he’s ready to work with her. Aiming to make it to the World Series Of Poker, Tell is confident that he can win. After all, he has all the traits of a poker player looking to level up. Tell knows how to prey on the weak, handle a bluff, and self-reflect. True enough, he makes it to the WSOP qualifying round. In their motel, though, Baufort reveals that he still plans to kill Gordo. Frustrated, Tell resorts to his brutal military persona and convinces Baufort to take his $150,000 winnings and return home. Baufort leaves, and Tell begins his relationship with La Linda. But this is a film about morality and guilt, so Tell isn’t happy for too long. At the final table of WSOP, he gets a call from Baufort who says he’s at Gordo’s house to kill him, prompting Tell to leave the table. News reports share that Baufort, identified as a home intruder, was killed by Gordo.
Overcome by emotion, Tell goes to Gordo’s home and shrouds all the furniture. Never one to be too gratuitous, Schrader here makes the choice to play out the horrors off-screen. After taking Gordo into another room for a “reenactment” of their horrific time in the Abu Ghraib prison (which is based on true events), all we hear are their screams. Before long, a wounded Tell emerges and calls the police.
In the film’s final moments, we see Tell back in jail. His world is regimented and bare, but he seems to like that. La Linda comes for a visit, and though they’re separated by glass, they reach out more freely than they’ve done before.
Although not one of Schrader’s strongest films, it reflects the artistry he’s created. A not-so-subtle allegory on our yearning for absolution and moral cleansing, The Card Counter can be confronting and gritty. All in all, it’s an enjoyable film that proves Schrader films are worth the gamble.
The Card Counter will be released on official Blu-Ray this December 2021. For more movie reviews and viewing guides, please check the rest of the blog here.
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