The Card Counter


Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter. Image courtesy Focus Features

MA 15+, 116 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury


A mind like a steel trap has its up and downside.

Ever since he served an eight-and-a-half-year term in military prison, William Tell/Tillich, played by Oscar Isaac, has been working hard at obliterating his past with nights spent at the casino. Although he is good at the card games, he maintains a low profile by making only small bets to avoid the celebrity razzamatazz. He prefers to operate solo, spending his time on the highway between casinos, travelling light but for a very dark past.

With his recall for hands played, he’s in a great position to predict what might come up next. It doesn’t sound like cheating to me, but it is frowned on in some places, so he makes himself a small target for that reason too.

In another sense, his amazing recollection means he can’t shake off memories that he doesn’t want to own, and it’s a liability. The value of recall can only depend on how honourably a life has been lived. At one crucial point, while in Iraq as a member of the US military, Tell was involved in the torture of prisoners of Abu Ghraib prison.

As a civilian now, Tell is quite the dude, sharp in his suit and tie, his face a mask that no one else around the green baize can possibly read. Away from the blackjack or poker table, it’s no different. He lets no one in and lets nothing out.

who would think that wiping a motel room clean of character would be that hard

There are curious habits too, some never explained. It seems he cannot inhabit a space unless he has taken down the prints and wrapped all the lamps and furniture in white cloth. You wouldn’t think that wiping a motel room clean of character would be that hard, but Tell goes to a lot of trouble to do it. Even so, he sleeps badly, unable to wipe his unconscious sleeping brain clean of the execrable experience of Abu Ghraib.

It’s a relief that along the way in the endless casino halls with their ugly garish décor and airless ambience, there are at least a few people who know him. Other gamblers, and a vibrant woman by the name of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who runs a stable of gamblers. She would like to get Tell to join her team, but he won’t be in it at first.

It’s an impressive performance by Oscar Isaac in a difficult role, while La Linda’s character brings a welcome warmth and humour into frame. So much so, it’s like she dropped in from another movie. It’s not the red stilettos or the flamboyant almond finger nails, it’s just that she seems improbably decent and nice for a casino regular.

When Tell drops in on a conference where a former private contractor from Abu Ghraib, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe, such a dependable baddie), is spruiking some new military software, his past begins to catch up with him. Cirk (Tye Sheridan) who recognizes him, suddenly handing him his contact details. The confused and angry young man, a college drop-out who spends his life on the internet, is bent on revenge, and as the reason for this becomes clear, things take a rather abrupt turn. Tell starts to become a kind of benefactor or guardian, in a transformation that isn’t entirely convincing.

A fine, transformative performance to open up new beginnings

The writer/director Paul Schrader, wrote the screenplays for Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, films that jump-started Martin Scorsese’s career. We recognize in him a filmmaker who has consistently serious intentions, but it’s hard not to hear Schrader’s own voice in his characters, who sometimes sound like they’re channelling him directly. Of course, what they say is exactly right, but does it need to sound so preachy?

Schrader’s film is a fairly tough gig, which is entirely unsurprising for a story about a terrible stain on America’s standing. As we move from one casino to the next, exchanging one set of garish chandeliers and faux leather lounges for another, the images don’t get any prettier either. No wonder Tell needs his whiskey bottle every evening as he fills his notebook in an exercise in expiation.

And yet The Card Counter is a search for redemption with a fine, transformative performance by Oscar Isaac as a character who is trying to open up new beginnings, and that’s something.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 December 2021. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes