The Card Counter, 2021.
Written and Directed by Paul Schrader.
Starring Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Slaughter, Amye Gousset, Joel Michaely, Ekaterina Baker, and Alexander Babara.
Redemption is the long game in Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, a revenge thriller which tells the story of an ex-military interrogator turned gambler haunted by the ghosts of his past.
With a title like The Card Counter, it certainly wouldn’t be unfair to presume that the latest from writer/director Paul Schrader (fresh off of what is easily his best directorial effort in First Reformed) that all manners of gambling (from poker to blackjack and more), specifically the art of advantageous but highly challenging mathematics, would serve as the focus. Sure, the logline mentions themes such as revenge and redemption, but it’s reasonable to think that the games themselves would play into those moral conundrums leading to a dramatic finale. It’s a pleasure to report that there is no big game. While despite the occasional voiceover narration from Oscar Isaac briefly explaining the fundamentals of what could be considered tactile cheating, it also isn’t loaded with an onslaught of technical jargon that comes across as chaotic wordplay to the average person.
Instead, Oscar Isaac’s William Tell is a former military interrogator (the torture kind, which forced him into doing things that still weigh heavily on his conscious) that took the fall and went to jail for simply following orders, whereas his superior Major John Gordo (a corrupt and vile Willem Dafoe, making the most of limited screen time) took no responsibility, got off clean, and went on to work in other fields. Currently, John is supporting and introducing new motion capture facial recognition that would effectively become a new and improved version of polygraphic testing.
Throughout his sentence, William grew to enjoy a mundane regimen, sorting out his mind and practicing card counting and discipline. The former is how he passes the time back out in the real world, helping to ensure that even if his newfound discipline does slip up, he is reformed and understands the cost of revenge and the cycle of pain it can perpetuate. With that in mind, it’s also intriguing to note that William doesn’t travel around America hitting up different casinos to score millions of dollars with his masterfully calm and impressive mathematic skills during card games, but rather as a hobby. He also mentions that the quickest way to get kicked out of a casino for card counting is by not tempering your winnings; they only kick out people that make a little too much money (some free information just in case you somehow ended up reading this review hoping to learn about card counting).
While living out his new everyday life (beautifully and tragically conveyed by Isaac as brooding and internally suffering from PTSD), William befriends two individuals. The first is a backer (someone that fronts half of the bill for excellent players with the goal of both taking home more money) going by the nickname of La Linda (a woefully miscast Tiffany Haddish when it comes to more serious-minded scenes and delivering lines all around) who takes a fancy to his play style. Naturally, she tries to court him for a business partnership. Initially, William has no interest, which changes upon meeting Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young metalhead (it should be obvious how William reacts to his musical taste given the torture methods we see carried out as nightmares boasting drug-induced visuals and hazy cinematography) familiar with the crimes of John Gordo and how William (among other low-level privates) paid the price.
Cirk not only has revenge on his mind but is out of his depth and has no idea what he’s actually doing. John’s actions significantly contribute to the reasoning behind Cirk’s father shifting into a violently abusive man towards him and his mother before killing himself. There’s pain that is being processed through the lens of a murder fantasy by someone who can’t come up with a real plan (his idea is to purchase tranquilizer equipment and go into John’s house firing without thinking) or find the bravery to step foot inside one of those interrogation prisons has father worked inside. In other words, he is all revenge and has no clarity.
As a result, William tries to save the soul of Cirk to the best of his abilities and personal experience, bringing him along traveling and regularly giving him money to blow at casinos as a distraction. William is also aware that Cirk is crushed in various debts (something else feeling that potential burst of violence), which becomes his primary motive for teaming up with La Linda playing celebrity games for heftier prizes. Again, there is no glamour to the games (aside from Oscar Isaac amusingly but understandably narrating wanting to shove an American flag down a belligerent patriotic player that doesn’t know the first thing about serving in the military) or mystery as to whether or not William will perform as expected.
Instead, The Card Counter is a moody piece (typical for Paul Schrader and in terrific form here) about one man finding redemption through preventing revenge from another and getting someone’s life back on track. There is one condition for Cirk to actually receive the money, tapping into elements of forgiveness as well. William’s steady and calm presence could also be interpreted as in favor of rehabilitation through prison, rather than believing no one is capable of change or finding inner peace.
Paul Schrader also takes his time studying his characters and allowing each of the relationship dynamics to slowly play out (the developing romance between William and Linda feels off due to the latter’s performance, but there is assuredly an arresting sequence inside a park of lights shining brightly that pulls up into the sky for a stunning overhead shot, placing fittingly distorted soft rock songs from Robert Levon Been. When the characters of The Card Counter make their decisions and seal their fates, it profoundly resonates. No counting is necessary here; Paul Schrader has another winner.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com