It is almost exactly a year since The Card Counter enjoyed its worldwide release. Paul Schrader enlisted a star-studded cast, including Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, and Willem Dafoe, despite working within the constraints of a tight budget that allowed for only one or two takes per scene. The Card Counter took almost $5 million at the global box office, received 15 nominations, and won three awards, yet the movie continues to divide opinions.
Gambling-themed films are nothing new; The Cincinnati Kid was released in 1965, for example. The cinema-going public love these movies because they tend to combine intense action and vast sums of money, and the protagonist usually ends up beating the house before riding off into the sunset as a hero. The Card Counter has gambling at its heart, but it is more about faith, grief, and trauma. Perhaps this is why the movie scores 87% in Rotten Tomatoes‘ critics’ section but only 42% under the audience score. Did the audience watch The Card Counter expecting an experience closer to Oceans 11 and, therefore, return home disappointed?
The Card Counter tells the tale of William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a gambler who taught himself to count cards while serving eight years in a military prison. Counting cards is a skill some blackjack players perfect, and while not illegal, it is frowned upon by casinos, and Tell would not be welcome at Vegas betting sites. To avoid detection from the casino’s security personnel, something the real-life MIT Blackjack Team did not manage, Tell opts to bet relatively small to keep his wins modest.
Tell bumps into La Linda, a woman who Tell knows through gambling who runs a stable of investors that back gamblers in exchange for a percentage of their winnings. La Linda offers Tell a stake, but he initially turns her down. Later, while in the New Jersey gambling haven of Atlantic City, Tell stumbles across a security-industry convention. He leaves almost immediately when he notices the now-retired Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) is running the show.
A young man, Cirk Baufort (Tye Sheridan), recognizes Tell and hands him his name and phone number. Tell eventually meets with Baufort, who explains he knows Tell is really PFC William Tillich. Baufort’s father, Roger Baufort (Britton Webb), served with Tell in the US Army. Both were tried and convicted for their roles in the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal. While Tell served his time and began rebuilding his life, Roger ultimately committed suicide; Cirk wants to exact revenge on Gordo, who was the officer in command. Cirk asks Tell to help capture and torture Gordo; Tell declines but offers to take Cirk with him as he gambles to try to prevent him from going down the path of violence.
Tell begins a staking deal with La Linda and tells her of his dream of playing at the World Series of Poker so he can earn enough money to pay off Cirk’s debts. Tell begins making plenty of money, but Cirk cannot shake off the idea of killing Gordo. Tell gives Cirk $150,000 of his winnings, more than enough to repay his and his mother’s debts, and instructs him to go home and return to college.
A Typical Schrader Movie
We will leave it there to avoid revealing spoilers; The Card Counter is worth watching and drawing conclusions for yourself. Isaac adapts to his role brilliantly; the film is worthy of your time for his performance alone. He plays a man who tries everything in his power to go about his business unnoticed but also shows what he is capable of, be that good or otherwise.
There will be many viewers who do not like how Schrader uses The Card Counter to make a statement about the atrocities the US military was part of during the Iraq conflict, but here is hoping those same people can see past that and enjoy the movie for its superb Isaac performance in a very typical Schrader style.