“Redemption is the long game in Paul Schrader’s THE CARD COUNTER. Told with Schrader’s trademark cinematic intensity, the revenge thriller tells the story of an ex-military interrogator turned gambler haunted by the ghosts of his past.”

Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Staring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Rating: R
Release Date: September 10, 2021

William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a quiet gambler and a military veteran. His isolating and observant demeanor is due in large part to the time he served he served in prison for military crimes surrounding torture and frowned-upon intelligence gathering techniques. Tell served his time and is traveling between casinos making out a living that he is comfortable with. He is a man of few friends, but many acquaintances.

One of Tell’s few trusted confidant La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), but it is the chance meeting with Cirk (Tye Sheridan) that changes Tell’s arc and outlook of his second chance at life. Cirk is the son of former solider at arms with Tell, both of whom were punished with prison times for their actions involving the torture of thought-to-be helpful prisoners of war. The soldiers took the fall for a man by the name of Gordo (Willem Dafoe), a former commander in the military that got off Scott free for the methods he pushed upon Tell and Cirk’s father.

Cirk wants to kill Gordo and exact revenge. He wants to avenge his father. Tell, while understanding the pain, tries to talk Cirk out emotive cycle. His biggest swing to sway the young man away from the path of violence is to ask him to go on the road with him. Soon it is Tell and Cirk on the road together and the newly invigorated father figure has made it is his task to get into the World Series of Poker to earn some bigger cash to support Cirk once he is ready to be out on his own again.

The relationship between Tell and Cirk is quick and it is built out of sorrow and guilt. Tell tries something new out, and that is a romantic connection with La Linda. It is not like love at first sight, but rather a “we think the same and run in the same circles” type of connection. They are font of each other, but they both know it is a delicate dance .

As the movie comes to a close, Cirk is telling Tell (his name is really funky) that he is getting tired of the life in the car and in the casinos. Tell gives Cirk some money for him to get on his feet, and makes him promise that he is to go see his mother to try and repair their poor relationship. Come the end of the movie, both men’s journeys come to a close…and the question is whether or not it is trek to a dead end or a highway to a lucky pot.

Tell (Oscar Isaac) getting a talking to from Gordo (Willem Dafoe)

Director and writer Paul Schrader created an intoxicatingly monotone vibe at the start of the movie. We are introduced to Tell and it is him narrating his thoughts on people, poker and life. His exposition falls in the bucket of “mundane things you’d never thing to know about or ask.” You ever ask what a post office driver does when he gets to the post office in the morning? You ever wonder his routine? But now you are thinking about it, right? That is what the start of The Card Counter is like; there is just a tickling sensation that you must know more. It helps that Schrader doesn’t scream all the answers to all your questions. Are we explicitly told why Tell wraps his motel rooms in cloth and rope? No, but again…we are intriqued.

Where The Card Counter falters is when the river card hits the table. When the story starts to wrap up its storylines, the ends becomes undone and the neat compact character story curdles. Cirk, in a truly shocking (not really at all), does not go see his mom. He lets Tell know what his plans are in only a way he can understand and as a result, our point of view character must make a choice whether to go all in in helping his newly adopted son, or on his potential poker winnings.

The Card Counter has many overarching themes, but none of them may be more prevalent than “The House Always Wins.” In this case of this story, the House does not always mean the casino. The House is more so one’s true self. It is one’s human nature. People often debate whether one is born with a certain juxtaposition, or whether it is learned in life. The Card Counter heavily leans on the latter. Tell learned how to torture people. Cirk learned of the evils of his father and vowed vengeance on Gordo when he figured out that it was him who ruined his father. Cirk doesn’t realize he is falling into the same trap his old man did.

The House is one’s true self. The House are the bits of you that you want to keep hidden but have been etched into your being. The house always wins.

If I could ask a question for Schrader, it would be inquiring about the true purpose of the American Flag Tank-Top wearing poker player that constantly ends up winning the final table. I mean sure, you can read it how the corruption of America always wins, and when we do, we scream from the rooftops about it. You can read it as America’s true nature is to win, and we will do anything to do it, including torturing folks.

The only other Paul Schrader movie I’ve seen is First Reformed (2017). If you have seen that Ethan Hawke drama, then you know Schrader can get very political and purposeful. I need to explore more Schrader films.

That is the question I have for him. I want to know what’s up with that proud American guy.

Well, I have some other questions too.

  • Why the fisheye camera lens viewpoint for the flashbacks of Tell? Is it because Tell was just caught up in the current like a fish in a river and just going with the flow?
  • The ending, SPOILERS AHEAD QUICK, why the choice to not show the violence between Gordo and Tell? Is it because the American public didn’t/doesn’t know what happen behind closed doors?

The one thing not up for debate is how Oscar Isaac is the only reason The Card Counter works a little bit. Much like many of the other fantastic roles Isaac has portrayed, the quiet and self-reflective characteristics treat him remarkably well. Isaac is able to get into the mold of a depressed and over-stimulated individual.

This really is a knack for Mr. Oscar.

Looking at his IMDB, many of Isaac’s best stuff have been in his calmest and most introverted characters: A Most Violent Year (2014), Dune (2021), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Ex Machina (2014) and The Card Counter. The worst movies of Isaac’s career are all part of franchises: Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker (2019) and X-Men Apocalypse (2016).

Speaking strictly for myself, if Oscar Isaac is on the poster, I will be interested in seeing the movie.

Tiffany Haddish, in the first serious role I have ever seen her in, holds her own and is by no means the weakest part of the movie. The weakest part of the movie is obvious. It is Tye Sheridan.

I wish that I Tye Sheridan was better but his performance is clunky. It is hard to buy the character as Cirk as supremely motivated to get at Gordo. He is calm in his anger and his overeagerness is childish for someone who looks like he is in his mid 20s. The scene that showed the stark contrast was when Tell took Cirk back to his hotel room. The bit of scared straight was wonderfully acted by Isaac with his seemingly unblinking eyes, but Sheridan’s performance is a step below.

The Card Counter is a movie that will not stop you in your tracks. It is like you walk into a bar, and you’ll pass it without a thought. But once you sit down and start surveying the atmosphere, you notice that it stands out as something different in a landscape you are very familiar with. You will be intrigued because it is different and it has something to say. You may not hear everything it is telling you, but you won’t be disappointed that you see it.

STANKO RATING: C+ (3.0/5 Stars)

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