The Card Counter

The Card Counter

In Theatres: 
Sep 10, 2021
Running Time: 
112 minutes

Flawed and tragic characters are Paul Schrader’s bread and butter. His films all but guarantee that they won’t get the happy ending they’re looking for, often ending with them in a worse off position than where they started. The Card Counter is the latest from Paul Schrader and feels like a companion to his previous film, First Reformed, as it explores the dark and disturbing complexities that haunt an ex-military interrogator turned poker player. Like most of Paul Schrader’s films, it can be a hard pill to swallow at times, but it washes down nicely with a good, stiff drink.


William (Oscar Isaac) spends his days moving from casino to casino playing hand after hand of blackjack. He’s good at what he does, and more often than not walks away while still in the black. He knows how to count cards to better his odds at winning, but unlike most gamblers he doesn’t have any ambitions to strike it rich or try and take the casino for everything they’ve got. He’s perfectly happy in his routine of winning enough to keep traveling from casino to casino and spending his days at the table. All that changes when he meets the young Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who recognizes him as one of the American interrogators in the Middle East who went to prison after photos surfaced of soldiers torturing captives. Cirk believes William was just a scapegoat to cover up for those in charge, and plans to punish the real person responsible, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). For William, that’s all in the past, and he takes Cirk under his wing to show him there’s more to life than revenge.


Oscar Isaac is the mysterious figure behind The Card Counter and gives a deliciously dark performance as he explores the tortured soul that is an ex-interrogator turned prisoner turned gambler. William is a guy who shows no outward emotion and Isaac does a fantastic job at hiding all that intensity just below the surface. He’s a kettle that is just about to boil over at any moment. He’s a man of routine, and every action he takes has purpose and weight to it. At the beginning of the film, we see him rent a motel room for a single night and methodically cover every piece of furniture with his own clean white sheets. At this point you’re not sure if he’s just a clean freak or if he’s about to create a crime scene, and frankly it could go either way. There’s a constant tension where you feel like anything can happen and that the story can quickly go in any direction. The camera likes to linger on a scene and let what’s on screen soak in for extra effect. Events will happen just out of sight to the point where you can hear them but that’s it, letting your own mind fill in the gaps.


Opposite Oscar Isaac’s performance is the more expressive Tye Sheridan, who for years now has been standing side by side with A-list actors to become one himself. Cirk exudes that young gung-ho attitude that is bound to get him in trouble, and it’s William who does his best to save him as some sort of redemption for his own past deeds. There is a genuine connection between the two as by just being around Cirk seems to loosen William up in just the slightest and disrupt his routine. But like with any Paul Schrader film, any flash of happiness is quickly snuffed out. It’s good to relish those moments, because they are so few and far between.


If you’re at all familiar with Paul Scrader’s work, then you know the kind of film you’re getting with The Card Counter. Love him or hate him, the film won’t change any minds either way. If you were a fan of 2017’s First Reformed, get ready to take a punch to the gut once again. The Card Counter embraces the flaws of society and puts them out there for the world to see.

Matt Rodriguez
Review by Matt Rodriguez
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