THE CARD COUNTER – movie review


Focus Features
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenwriter: Paul Schrader
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/4/21
Opens: September 10, 2021. September 30, 2021 streaming.

How can I bankrupt this casino?

If you’ve ever had to pay a price for something you did while the person above you who coaxed you to do it gets away, you will empathize and sympathize with the plight of William Tillich (Oscar Isaac). Tillich’s plight is told in “The Card Counter,” directed by Paul Schrader, known for such films as “American Gigolo” (1980) about a Los Angeles escort catering to rich, older women, who is arrested for a murder he did not commit.

Tillich, who goes by the name William Tell, served in the infamous division in Abu Graib prison in Iraq, where American soldiers went beyond what is normally acceptable using the technique of enhanced interrogation.” To gain information from alleged terrorists which would presumably save American lives, the torturers would kick prisoners, waterboard them, sic German Shepherds on them (the Arabic culture does not look kindly on dogs), strip them for presentation to women soldiers. He was trained by Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). When the press got hold of the procedures, showing ghastly pictures to the American public, the army cracked down (as though the perps were not directed to do this), and the public was shocked by the degradation and corruption. Tillich was arrested and sent to Leavenworth Prison for eight and one-half years, while his superiors, who ordered the violence, went scotfree.

During his time in a prison, which seems from this film to be not so bad—a clean private cell for each convict—he learns to like reading for the first time and trains himself to count cards. The latter skill would allow him to profit, to make a good living, in fact, by traveling the casino circuit playing blackjack against the house and poker against the competitors. He meets people who will change his life: La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who wants to introduce him to a stable of poker tournament people who will bank his bets for a fifty percent cut; and Cirk Baufort (Tye Sheridan), a younger man who would hang out with the card counter and whose mounting debt and estrangement from his mother would lead the title character to redeem himself by helping the innocent kid.

Oscar Isaac plays Tillich with a quiet voice, a good looking fellow who raises his fists and his voice in Abu Ghraib and once again in a domestic scene, but throughout “The Card Counter” shows him to be a man who detests violence. (This will not last.) We hear several narrations of his thoughts, which tell us much about his mind set since, after all, movies are not as good as book in that respect. A noirish movie, with most scenes in dark nights and basic motels, “The Card Counter” will suit an audience that prefers high melodrama to be a small segment of a story and which concentrates more on the inner workings of its characters than on plot.

There really are people in the real world who would sacrifice almost everything to relieve their guilt, so Tillich stands in for the sort of person who is willing to give up the pleasures of life because of a high degree of morality. A serious, well-acted story, Dostoevkien if you will.

110 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B