Going into The Card Counted I had the presumption of it being like 21, a heist film centered around the game of Blackjack in which the main character and his team count cards and score big payouts. I came to this conclusion without seeing any trailers for The Card Counter based on the title and gladly I was proved wrong. The Card Counter is not what I expected in the least, yet the title of the film is a misdirection for what the story is. It’s a gambling movie that isn’t about gambling. Sure, that’s what the film revolves around for much of its deliberate pace but at any moment the story can abandon the gambling aspect, and no one would complain or second guess the choices made by writer director Paul Schrader.
Much like a similar Schrader written screenplay Taxi Driver, The Card Counter is a character study about a person and his choices in life. William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a former military prison guard involved in torture practices and the command of Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Tell, real name Tillich is convicted of prisoner abuse, serving a prison sentence of 8 years. In that time span Tell learned to count cards and once released, uses that skill to bet and win small, staying under the radar of casino security. Tell is a nomad traveling from state to state, motel to motel, writing in a journal every single day after completely covering the room in white sheets.
In Tell’s travels he meets La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) a broker for a group of investors who back gamblers for a portion of their winnings. Reluctant as he is, Tell decides to go on tour with La Linda backing him while not showing too much of the hand he’s holding.
Accompanying Tell on his trip is Cirk (Tye Sheridan) (pronounced Kirk) who’s father also worked with Tell under Gordo but when the fallout of the prisoner abuse scandal came out, Cirk’s father took his own life leaving Cirk to seek revenge and retribution against Gordo. Reuniting is Isaac and Sheridan, who both appeared in X-Men: Apocalypse, though didn’t have much shared screen time there, the two have a chemistry that translates through their characters. Their quick bond together is believable given how the characters are developed.
At its core, The Card Counter is a revenge film with gambling undertones. Will respecting the craft mocks it in the sense of the tournament setting. Instead, he would rather stay under the radar, staying anonymous not creating too much noise. Tell is precise, calculated, and cautious. That’s where the comparison to Travis Bickle comes in to play. Both characters take their time, assess the situation and the risk vs reward, and make decisions based on that intel. In a way, gambling suits Will Tell in how he lives his life. He has a code and nothing, not even Cirk’s revenge plot can take Will off his path of seclusion.
In Tell’s general apathy for everything around him, he truly cares about Cirk and setting his life on the right track. Revenge clouds a person’s judgment, it distracts us from whats important in life – friendship, love, happiness.
One scene in particular will stay with you well beyond the films brutal conclusion that happens between Tell and Cirk. A pin could drop and the tension built by cinematographer Alexander Dynan as he pans from character to character. The unpredictability behind Tell’s actions are frightening once he acts on his impulses that pays off in a following scene with La Linda.
Led by an unpredictable yet attention-grabbing performance by Isaac who steals the film with his charismatic nature that draws you in with every syllable he speaks and every action he takes. It’s impossible to look away with how commanding Isaac’s screen presence is. No wonder Isaac is tapped to play the Marvel hero Moon Knight in the upcoming Disney Plus series – he can pull off a multi-personality disorder without any effort or strain. In that is the pacing that mirrors Tell’s personality – cautious and deliberate, building anticipation to see how the current scene will lead into the next. Every action has a consequence attached – almost like a domino effect that Schrader creates which snowballs into the film’s final act.
The Card Counter should be seen with no prior knowledge of what this film is about. Don’t read anything about it (including this review) don’t watch the trailer, just go in blind and be ready for an experience that you’re unprepared for but grateful, nonetheless. Going into it blind is the best way to be surprised and have the true identity stick the landing. The world that Schrader creates is engulfing that leaves much to be explored and desired. For a film that isn’t about the gambling aspect within, Schrader keeps his hand close to his chest never showing his tell of a possible misdirection in the story. Perhaps Schrader does show his hand early on but uses his main character as the scapegoat (his last name). All four performances standout and among them is a well written friendship between Isaac, Haddish and Sheridan. Combined, their character’s relationships stand out among a strong script, a score by Robert Levon Been that creates the atmospheric tension and an overall well told narrative about how the past can easily control and destroy the present and the future. It’s all about choices and the message in which its delivered.
Written By: Paul Schrader
Directed By: Paul Schrader
Music By: Robert Levon Been
Cinematography: Alexander Dynan
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Release Date: September 10, 2021
Running Time: 1 Hour 52 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%
My Score: 4 out of 5