There have been quite a few Hollywood flicks on gambling, one of the more well-known ones being 21. The latest to hit the theaters is The Card Counter, a powerful movie with a powerhouse cast and production credits! What else would you call a cast consisting of Oscar Isaac, Willem Dafoe, Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan, and with Martin Scorsese as executive producer?

The Card Counter: Slow Pace, High Action 

If you are still looking for the recipe for no-flash-and-bang-but-absolutely-intense revenge thriller, you may want to have a chat with Paul Schrader, the man behind The Card Counter. Or better still, and of course infinitely easier, watch the movie!

This movie has the right ingredients in the right proportions: an ex-military interrogator who has served prison time, the angry young son of an ex-serviceman, a villainous former military major, gambling and the World Series of Poker all contribute to the conjuring of an easy-paced yet high-voltage thriller.

Nuanced Story-telling at Its Best in The Card Counter

The Card Counter is about revenge and redemption, yes, but it is not a shot-out-of-a-cannon effort. The pace is almost languid, and the mysteries that seem to shroud the character of Tell slowly unravel as the story unfolds. There is a mention of his 8-year prison stint, but no explanation at the beginning, for instance; that explanation comes later. 

There are other instances, a major one being the character attributes of Tell himself. He is shown to be someone who bets small and wins small, possibly someone looking to avoid the limelight? And then there is his odd habit of staying in motels and covering the furniture in each room he stays in with sheets and binding them down with twine!

Whether The Card Counter will become one of those gambling movies with an important lesson to be learned or just a good old action flick is something for you to find out. One clue, though – this movie is not about card counting and blackjack; the title and the craft of card counting is a prop that Schrader uses superbly to flesh out the multi-layered complexities of his protagonist – William Tell, a former military interrogator turned gambler – played by Oscar Isaac.

The Card Counter: The Story as it Unfolds

The Card Counter features as one of its main protagonists William Tell – played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac – a low key gambler who plays to keep his life together. And it has been a tough life: he was a US military interrogator in the dreaded Abu Ghraib prison who ended up in prison for his role there. 

There was a point in Abu Ghraib where he considered death, not killing himself of course but having an inmate do it. But survive Abu Ghraib he did; he got through his prison term at Leavenworth too, because he is a survivor. As the film progresses he finds 2 reasons to continue living – the wonderful La Linda, a fellow poker player, a role essayed wonderfully by Tiffany Haddish, and Cirk, the son of a military vet who served with Tell and later killed himself. 

La Linda and Cirk represent two of the most important emotions in life – love and rage respectively. Linda is the one Tell falls in love with, and Cirk is the boy whose rage Tell tries to soothe. And it is a rage well-founded, because Cirk’s father took his own life because of the guilt he felt over Abu Ghraib and the son placed the blame on the person who trained them and who escaped punishment, leaving them t take the prison term. 

Cirk’s plan is simple, abduct the major – Willem Dafoe at his menacing best – and give him a taste of his own medicine and then kill him. Tell tries to make him see reason and even goes to the extent of teaming up with La Linda and getting on the World Series of Poker to win and help Cirk pay back his debts and start afresh. 

Does Tell succeed in reigning in the angry young man that Cirk is? Does he find love for keeps? What happens to the major? Does he get his just desserts? The best way to get answers to all these questions is to watch the movie, and it is worth every minute you spend doing so!

The Card Counter: Director’s Take

Paul Schrader has been a big fan of Robert Bresson, the French filmmaker. And it is apparent in some of his characters over time, be it the almost-ascetic protagonist in his 1992 film, Light Sleeper, or Tell in The Card Counter. He mentions Bresson and his influence in his seminal work – Transcendental Style in Film: Dreyer, Ozu, Bresson. 

Travel back in time to view Diary of a Country Priest by Bresson and you will find echoes of the main character and the tools used in The Card Counter. The priest in Bresson’s film maintains a diary and the words are brought to life through voiceover. Fast forward to 2021 and you find the same in Schrader’s work too – Tell maintains a diary too and there is voiceover! The priest himself comes to life as a minister in another of Schrader’s works – First Reformed, which released in 2017.

The Card Counter film sees Oscar Isaac put in a scintillating performance, ably supported by Tiffany Haddish and the rest of the cast. The film had its world premiere on September 2, 2021, at the Venice Film Festival, and was released in theaters on September 10, 2021.