The Card Counter is oozing catharsis most palpable.
The Card Counter (2021) Review By Mark McPherson
Published on September 16, 2021
Rating 4 /5
Paul Schrader’s latest film is very much in league with other pictures. It paints a portrait of a complicated character with a brooding nature of trying to find some reason in the world. We follow people who are quiet and conflicted, unsure of how to find some sense of contentment in a chaotic world. It’s an internal struggle I can’t get enough of, even if The Card Counter doesn’t quite live up to the same high standards as Schrader’s First Reformed.
The film follows the mysterious William Tell (Oscar Isaac). The casino crowd recognizes him as a top card player. He knows how to play and make a living at counting cards and making just enough money to not piss off a casino or rock the boat of celebrity card sharks. In his mind, we hear his narration while at the tables. He lets us in on the secret of how to count cards, calculate odds, and eyeing your opponents. That’s only what he reveals in the casino.
At the hotel, however, he’s a different person. He doesn’t stay in the casino hotel but rather a motel. Upon entering, he removes all distractions of paintings and phones. He takes out bed sheets and covers the tables and chairs in sterile white. He then writes in his journal about his previous time. His time in prison makes him question his skills. His time as a soldier in Abu Ghraib haunts him, making for horrific nightmares. It’s only during this quiet time in the motel that he is most open.
He has some companions he makes at the casino. La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) is a sly card coach who likes to build stables of players and finds herself infatuated with William. Tagging along is Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man with a bone to pick. His father was in Abu Ghraib as well but was punished with a prison sentence that not all involved shared. William is aware of this, having spent time in prison for just such an act of military service. He’s also aware of the most successful officer from such an ordeal, the wealthy and influential Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Cirk desires revenge but William is hoping he can convince the young man that there’s more to life than revenge.
William’s life is a surreal one of trying to run and hide from the past. He’s grown to learn that there are some forces you can’t quite defeat and that continuing to fight the system will ultimately drain you. This point is bluntly portrayed by a rival card player who wears an American flag tank top and constantly chants “USA'' throughout the film. This player always wins and always chants. You can’t beat him. More importantly, you’re paid not to beat him. William could beat this guy but that wouldn’t lead to a lucrative and sensible career in gambling. There’s this constant questioning of just how long he keeps up this facade and how long he can deny a certain sense of justice.
The Card Counter is oozing catharsis most palpable. It takes its time to slowly reveal its world that is shocking, lonely, tense, and bitter. Schrader’s many sequences are fantastic showcases of typographic exposition and distorted nightmares of prison through exaggerated lenses. The performances by Isaac, Sheridan, Haddish, and Dafoe are all perfectly understated, letting scenes linger long enough to get used to their presences and closed natures. While the endings stumble a bit in trying to find some way to bring contentment to such a life, I must say that he still hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to gripping tales of complicated people seeking answers they may never find.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.