THE CARD COUNTER gets 7.5/10 Keeps its cards close

Directed by Paul Schrader

Starring Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish, Willem Dafoe


It could be said that poker is usually more serious than fun, which could also be said for The Card Counter. But unlike poker, The Card Counter has a powerful moral core, supplemented as it goes along by characters trying desperately to navigate the right path for themselves and others.

Tell (Oscar Isaac) claims he enjoyed the regiment and discipline of military prison more than he thought. He spent eight years there for his involvement in the Abu-Ghraib atrocity, and now he’s hit the road, making (and losing) his money through gambling. At one of the casino-hotels, he notices a seminar being held by a torture expert, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the superior who worked over Tell in Abu-Ghraib, and received very little punishment for his own criminal involvement.

In the seminar, he meets a young man Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who seems to contain a volatile intensity – he’s the son of another soldier involved in Abu-Ghraib, who wishes to retaliate against Gordo, as he blames him for his dad’s abusive state and eventual suicide when he got back from the service. Although Tell has a volatile intensity of his own, he brings Cirk under his wing, taking him on the road as they head from casino to casino, making sure the young man stays out of any trouble.

Tackling the casino road life at the forefront and the Abu-Ghraib atrocities in the background, the film handles these two as it goes along, never allowing the casino moments to be too boring and never letting the political angle to become too didactic. Ultimately, this is a simple and unpretentious redemption story, but it only truly feels that way as it comes to a finish, keeping us at arm’s lengths due to the taut and unnerving vibe the film gives off.

If you’re a Paul Schrader fan, this will feel like comfortable, but familiar territory. It seems a tad derivative of Schrader’s last film, the acclaimed First Reformed, where you have a troubled anti-hero, throwing back whiskies and jotting in his journal, who finds himself entangled with a nationwide issue that plagues his mind. And the ending of the film is completely derivative of Schrader’s own Light Sleeper, which is derivative of his earlier film American Gigolo, all of which are derivative of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket!

But despite the clear influences, the emotional power of The Card Counter still comes through. Tell claims that living as a poker player means living in a tight margin, which is also how he acts morally – it seems throughout most of the film he could fall either way. There are issues with some forced character motivations and moments, but it’s all to serve a film with a pure and clearly thought-out core.


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