The Card Counter – movie review

With a haunting look in his eyes, Oscar Isaac (Dune) excels in Paul Schrader’s (First Reformed) intense crime drama The Card Counter.

Isaac is William Tell, a cheerless loner who likes to go under the radar. As an elite card player, he travels extensively between casinos, but doesn’t like to draw attention to himself. To that end, he isn’t out for the big bucks. His game of choice is poker, although he also plays blackjack and roulette on occasions. One day he is hit upon by a lady with whom he is familiar, gambling agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). She proposes that they formalise a business arrangement that stands to make Tell some serious coin. He turns her down, comfortable with the low-key existence he has.

A chance encounter with a young man at a security conference soon changes that. Cirk (Tye Sheridan) is a college dropout who claims to know Tell. Cirk informs Tell that the association is through his father, who worked alongside Tell in the military. Cirk has hatched a plan that he wants Tell’s help in executing. But Tell turns the tables, offering to help out Cirk if he returns to college and reconnects with his estranged mother. The finance for this arrangement would come by Tell accepting La Linda’s offer of a partnership. Only there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

Morality is at play here. The Card Counter ekes out its revelations, and it takes quite a while to learn the full truth. The movie is all the better for it. The film has slow-burn appeal, with a sting in the tail. As much as Tell says he enjoys playing cards, the film deliberately shows up the emptiness and eccentricities of his existence. Ever the auteur, Schrader shrewdly uses Tell’s stonewalling to set the tone of the piece.

Tell is trying desperately to bury the past, but invariably it comes back to haunt him. Shrader juxtaposes Tell’s remoteness with La Linda’s buoyant personality. Isaac assumes the former’s persona with a deliberate hollowness (suggesting the character has seen far too much). Like Isaac, Haddish (Girls Trip) casts a large shadow. She’s effervescent and effusive. The picture benefits from their pairing.

Cirk hardly has a winning personality … and Sheridan (Voyagers) plays him accordingly. Cirk knows what he wants to do and he determines nothing will stand in his way of seeing that through. The film also features Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse) as a former colleague of Tell’s.

I found The Card Counter intriguing brain food.

Alex First

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