“The Card Counter” is a movie about a man with a unique skill, and you can guess that skill. During a spell in the slammer, he learned that he was good at counting cards, meaning the cards used in gambling. He is a low-profile expert at winning. He keeps a low profile due to his criminal record, and because casinos discourage ‘card counter’ players. But when his past catches up to him, he goes all in. He does not count on what happens next.
Bill Tell (played by Oscar Issac) is an intense man with an intense past. But he lives a quiet life below the radar, so nobody will notice his special skills. He developed an ability to mentally track cards from a playing deck and assign values. He can calculate his odds at any moment, and knows when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em. He knows when to walk away — that is, anytime his winnings begin to attract the attention of a Pit Boss. He leaves with his chips to cash in — and avoids playing at the same place again. He can play another day in another city. He makes enough to live a sparse life. But he’s good at what he does.
Bill happens to meet a woman named La Linda (played by Tiffany Haddish). She runs a ‘stable’, that is — she gets expert gamblers together with financial backers. The backing can help these players get into the “World Series of Poker”. The players can play big and win big. When they win big, they need to pay a portion to La Linda and the backers. If they lose, then they are on the hook until they can win back all that they owe. Bill also meets a young fellow named Cirk (played by Tye Sheridan). Cirk says they both have the same enemy. That enemy is named Major John Gordo (played by Willem Dafoe). Bill Tell was in the military, while Gordo was a civilian Contractor — both were assigned with Cirk’s father. They both served in the Abu Ghraib prison.
Cirk’s father and Bill Tell were under the command of Gordo at the prison. What they did was take extreme measures against prisoners, which included abuse and torture. Cirk’s father could not live with himself afterwards, and he beat his wife. After she left him, he then beat Cirk. Then he committed suicide. Bill was found guilty of prisoner abuse and torture. He spent almost nine years in a U.S. military prison.
Major John Gordo, on the other hand, was a civilian protected by the CIA, and he got no punishment. Instead, he was able to turn his experience into a thriving security business and became rich. Cirk lost his parents because of Gordo. Bill lost his freedom because of Gordo. So they both have a reason to go after Gordo.
Cirk is brash and unkempt. But he is laser-focused on his goal. His goal is to find John Gordo. Then kidnap him put him through the same humiliation that the Abu Ghraib prisoners felt. Bill is smooth and smartly-dressed, and he moves with an eye focused on his surroundings, should he need to make a quick escape. He also holds a major grudge against John Gordo, but he also knows that his time in prison focused his skills with counting and tracking cards.
Bill has been able to use that skill to make a living, drifting from town to town playing blackjack and poker. Bill Tell knows that Gordo never faced any punishment for his crimes, and he understands Cirk is ready to do something rash. La Linda is able to get Bill into the entry levels of the “WSoP” starting tournaments. He starts out slowly, but he continues to progress into the next rounds every time.
La Linda and Bill become romantically aligned. Bill can sense that Cirk is thinking more and more about his plan to kidnap, torture and kill Major John Gordo. Bill takes Cirk aside and gives him a totally different option. Cirk must decide to try and change his life around and see his mother where they can both start over again. Or he can continue down his current path of potential destruction.
It would be the destruction of John Gordo’s life, or it would be the destruction of Cirk’s own life if things go badly. Bill Tell wants to make up for the wrongs that he did back in the Abu Ghraib prison, under the command of John Gordo. He knows that Gordo needs to pay, but he does not want Cirk to follow that path. Bill has his final game coming up at the “World Series of Poker”. Winning in this final round would allow him walk away with La Linda and maybe start something new. That is, if his past does not come back to haunt him again…
“The Card Counter” makes tremendous use of Oscar Isaac as an actor. He makes a character with an odd name like ‘William Tell’ into a haunted and mysterious man. He is beset with guilt and self-loathing, but he has an intense focus on his situation and his surroundings. He makes every different hotel room a plain white sheet draped work area. His game is not blackjack or poker. His game is observation, looking over every card played and every player. He can tell if there is a win coming or not.
The writing and directing are very good, with some final flaws in the finishing touches. All the supporting actors are fine, but not up the level of Oscar Isaac. Could this Oscar be looking forward to a trophy of the same name next year? It might be in the cards, and I hope he is counting on it!
The Card Counter
Written & Directed by: Paul Schrader
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Cinematography: Alexander Dynan
Edited by: Benjamin Rodriguez Jr.
Music by: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Distributed by: Focus Features
Release date: September 10, 2021
Length: 112 minutes
MPAA rating: R for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality
Genre: Crime Drama