Opening 3 Mar 2022
Writing credits: Paul Schrader
Principal actors: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe, Alexander Babara
The Card Counter opens with William Tillich (Oscar Isaac) serving an eight-year stint in a military prison, narrating how his obsession with card counting developed and literally has saved his life. He is a soldier with a twisted past and has been convicted for his role in the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse. The photos had been released on the social media. Everyone paid the price except those in charge. Released from prison, Tillich begins his new life as a semi-professional gambler travelling from one casino to the next. His methods show his tendencies for compulsive needs and complete control, which he now uses to hold his life together. It appears to work perfectly until he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of one of his military colleagues who has long since died. Cirk has no plans for the future but is instead bent on revenge and is here to enlist Tillich to help with his plan. Tillich has a completely different idea and seeks out the opportunity to find salvation and free his soul of all his past torments. Besides he has met a mysterious gambling financier La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who has caught his eye.
Will he win the World Series of Poker in Vegas, or will he save Cirk from making a bad decision, or will he find forgiveness for his past deeds? Beside the main plot, we spin the wheel in the gambling games and learn at the same time all the different probability factors in the games. How likely are we to win against the house, or should we walk away? The film has a very controlled feel to it as we are becoming more entwined in the inevitable plot but hoping it won’t take that road. The film touches on the tragic true-life facts where soldiers ruthlessly integrated prisoners, but it also explains the how and why those events may have taken place. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer)
Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter is a quiet, yet piercing movie that packs guilt, revenge, redemption, and even love into a visually rich and resonant dramatic thriller. Much of Schrader’s screenplay dialogue, by the protagonist William Tell while journaling, is virtually poetical; not least, Schrader’s confident directorial choices have his trademark finesse, and discomfitures. In tandem, the talent in front of and behind the camera melds into the film’s mellifluous forcefulness.
From a kid that thought any kind of confinement was abhorrent, the confined man is comfortable with routine and regimen – Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of William Tell is viscerally hypnotic and intellectually stimulating. While doing a stretch in military prison, besides getting to know himself and reading books, Bill learned how to count cards, play cards, and do card tricks. Now Bill travels a circuit; he plays for small stakes, lives austerely—no frills, no fuss—and always overnights in motel rooms rather than casino hotels. On top of that, Bill sufferers from tortuously tormenting dreams. For counterbalance, Tiffany Haddish’s character is La Linda, a sexy, funny, smart, and savvy stable manager, i.e., she recruits gamblers for a group of investors to financially back for a cut of their winnings. She tries to recruit the inscrutable Bill, but he prefers being “under the radar.” Still, they are easy together. In Atlantic City an antagonist appears; Tye Sheridan, as Cirk Baufort, catches the protagonist off guard; and during their early morning first meeting Bill thinks, “Who is this insolent little prick?” listening to the kid. Until he realizes their lives are interconnected through a onetime military officer, now private mercenary. Willem Dafoe plays insidious John Gordo with rant-packed gusto. Somewhat alarmed by Cirk’s slipshod avenge mission and hoping to steer him clear, Bill offers Cirk a road-trip detour.
Cinematographer Alexander Dynan’s choices in film tonality, angles and distinct focal variations play into the gritty subterranean world existing behind gamblers closely guarded hands, and the crucial subplot. For example, Dynan used fisheye lens distortion to defuse the immoral beastlier abuse (the film replicates) at Abu Ghraib, the Baghdad prison-cum-detention center run by US military police (leaving an indelible black stain on US history). The sound design’s timing, variety, and sometimes ominousness, e.g., indeterminable breathing heard during the film is impressive. Benjamin Rodriguez Jr. cleverly edits in harmony with Robert Levon Been and Giancarlo Vulcano’s music. Paul Schrader tapped into professional/available sources for card games explanations, etc.
Metaphors and allusions aside, The Card Counter storyline is engrossingly tense, stark, and searing, as it evocatively builds, e.g., Bill’s nightmare, to what might to some seem a cryptic ending. Instead, its plausible setting speaks volumes, as well as where there is closure, there can be new beginnings. Besides its being educational apropos cards. (Marinell Haegelin)