"I take orders from the Octoboss."

The Card Counter

THE CARD COUNTER is the new one from writer/director Paul Schrader, with Oscar Isaac (THE BOURNE LEGACY) taking his turn as the Schraderian anti-hero. Like so many of these characters, William Tell (as he calls himself) is a troubled man with an unusual and lonely lifestyle, who narrates his story in the form of diary entries, telling us about his normal routine before things go horribly wrong.

In some ways he hearkens back to (non-narrating, from what I remember) Richard Gere in AMERICAN GIGOLO, because he’s handsome, and neatly dressed and coifed. On the surface he seems charismatic and sociable, especially compared to most of the other people in his circle as a professional gambler.

Like the title says, he can count cards. He explains the concept of it – keeping track of the cards being played to calculate his odds, saving larger bets for when they lean in his favor. He explains how he travels around to different casinos, telling us his strategies for different games, and his philosophy of making enough money to keep going but not enough to get the casinos after him. I’m not a cards guy or a gambling guy so I don’t really give a shit if some of it is wrong (as I read some claim). I’m happy to accept that he knows what he’s talking about, and I can follow enough of it to get by.

On the road he runs into the same people over and over again, they make small talk, remember where they saw each other last. We see various players with their performative gimmicks, wearing their hoodies or sunglasses or headphones. There’s some Ukrainian guy (Alexander Babara, TRIPLE 9) everybody hates who dominates many of the events wearing gaudy American flag clothes and with two flunkies who chant “USA! USA!” when he wins. These characters kind of remind me of the bit parts in later Clint Eastwood movies. I wonder if any of them are real card players making cameos? They’re very true to the principle that things that pass for cool in the world of poker – as in wrestling or anime – come off as completely dorky to the uninitiated.

Schrader continues mostly in the intentionally plain style he used for his previous film, FIRST REFORMED. I’ve heard that it’s based in the findings in his 1972 film theory book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, but also that the narrow 4:3 aspect ratio was inspired by Pawel Pawlikowski’s IDA. I like the simplicity of the camerawork, but the most noticeable aspect is the clean looking digital cinematography of Alexander Dynan, working with Schrader for the third time. In stills it looks good but in motion it looks more video-y than I prefer at times. I miss the style of older Schrader movies. CAT PEOPLE, AMERICAN GIGOLO, especially MISHIMA, obviously – those are beautiful looking movies. I think these movies would look amazing if he shot them the same but on 16 mm or did something to give them more texture, but I guess that’s not the experience he’s trying to create. And anyway I’m a guy who would be excited if all his movies still had synthy, disco-y soundtracks by Giorgio Moroder. He’s not stuck in the past the same way I am.

It also must be said that this look fit FIRST REFORMED thematically because of the ascetic lifestyle of its pastor protagonist, and THE CARD COUNTER because it reflects both the regimented, antiseptic way Tell prefers to live since prison and the generic, repetitive feel of the casinos and hotels he cycles between.

(I was excited when I saw the Golden Nugget sign in the trailer, thinking it was the place I’ve stayed in Las Vegas, but it was actually a Golden Nugget in Biloxi. Part of the movie is in Vegas, but it’s mostly smaller casinos in less glamorous places, which is much better for this story. I know this was a Covid era movie – I wonder if they took advantage of that window when the casinos were all closed?)

The look also contrasts well with the one straight up phantasmagoric sequence, making that part of the movie all the more of a gut punch. The subject of THE CARD COUNTER was hidden in the trailer, though I knew about it from the headline of the Daily Beast review. But I consider this a SPOILER. Like many a crime fiction anti-hero (and this kinda is a crime story, or is adjacent to one), Tell is an ex-con. We see some of his 8 1/2 years in prison as he talks about what he learned from it – including card counting and discipline. He never claims to have been innocent, so we know he has some kind of dark past, and some odd things that happen make us wonder what it’s all about.

And then he has a nightmare about it, really breaking the previous style of the movie. His dream is about Abu Ghraib, and it’s all depicted in a continuous shot floating through its filthy, shit-stained hallways, floors wet with God knows what, a new horror unfolding around every corner, soldiers strutting around laughing as prisoners scream in pain, cower, covering their genitals, are humiliated, threatened, barked at by a German shepherd. And Schrader and Dynan use some sort of fisheye lens or effect that bends the bottom of the image into a weird funhouse mirror/kaleidoscope kind of thing that makes it all the more stomach-churning.

It’s an interesting coincidence that this is coming out right after the end of the war in Afghanistan, as people who turned a blind eye to, quickly forgot, or even tried to justify the atrocities done supposedly in the name of our safety now portray ending the war as the immoral act and humanitarian disaster. The depiction of Abu Ghraib here is so repulsive it feels almost wrong watching it – a sign that it’s something we haven’t faced thoroughly enough, I think.

Tell would certainly like to forget it, but here he is in a casino where there’s a law enforcement/security conference going on, and he sees a flyer for the Major who trained him in interrogation techniques (Willem Dafoe, THE LOVELESS) giving a talk as a respected expert on facial recognition software or some shit. I like the detail that Tell intentionally came to gamble here now because, he says, once cops get a few drinks in them they think they can do anything. But the coincidence draws him in, and a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan, THE TREE OF LIFE) spots him leaving the talk and weirdly gives him his phone number. Tell does meet with the kid, and finds out his story: his dad was at Abu Ghraib too, got in trouble for it too, came home fucked up, beating on the family, eventually shot himself. And his kid wants some payback on the guys who just got to go on with their lives.

FIRST REFORMED had a righteous anger about an undeniable outrage: government and big business refusing to stop the practices that are rapidly hurtling us all toward environmental catastrophe. For THE CARD COUNTER, the outrage is the lack of accountability for the architects of these acts of savagery. Cirk says his dad and Tell took the fall as “bad apples” while the “rotten barrel” went free. Only the guards seen humiliating prisoners in photos were punished, he says, not everyone else who did it, or trained them to do it (or created the doctrine to justify training them to do it).

In the Bush era we were concerned about all the criminals from the Iran-Contra era, and even the Watergate era, coming into power again, still fucking shit up all around the world. That group of people got away with Abu Ghraib and Iraq and Afghanistan and so much more. Some of them carried over into the Trump era, and they and their even worse collaborators seem to be getting away with the shit they did then. Here we are with all those assholes who broke into the Capitol and literally and figuratively rubbed shit all over the walls on January 6th rightfully having the book thrown at them, while the much more dangerous people who brainwashed and asked them to do it have yet to suffer any consequences. So this movie feels very of-the-moment even though it’s about old shit. Sadly, it’s timeless.

Tell tries to do a good deed for Cirk in a secret master plan that involves taking up a previously refused offer from another player, La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, “Resistance Soldier,” TERMINATOR SALVATION video game), to hook him up with a backer and play in the World Series of Poker.

Sheridan is really good as a guy in baggy sweatshirts and flip flops, who perpetually looks like he just woke up from an incomplete night of sleep. Tell convinces him to travel with him, tries to be a good influence on him, but how can that happen in this lifestyle? He’ll say he’s having fun but seems understandably bored and depressed. One of the only things that he seems a little positive about is that he likes La Linda and encourages Tell to have a relationship with her.

Haddish occasionally seems constricted by the dialogue and not being able to joke and riff much, but she brings some light in the middle of this dark tale, and it’s cool to see her in a romance with Isaac. They’re both such movie stars in general, but the love story feels very human and down to earth, as both characters are a little shy and awkward about making it happen. (And to think he wouldn’t have necessarily run into her again if he hadn’t reluctantly gone from one shitty casino to a different shitty casino with some acquaintance he doesn’t seem to like very much named Slippery Joe [Bobby C. King, stunt coordinator of STARSHIP TROOPERS 2: HERO OF THE FEDERATION]).

THE CARD COUNTER works in a world compatible with our pulp/crime story tastes, but it pretty much rhymes with FIRST REFORMED: a middle aged man who seems satisfied with his lonely, self-disciplined lifestyle tries to help an angry, damaged younger man, fails, and is spurned to extreme action in the name of the younger man’s legitimate moral outrage. I don’t think it’s quite as good – one of the most shocking scenes is staged in a way that comes off a little silly, and it was more novel to center this type of story on a pastor. But I really like the way Schrader circles around similar storylines and themes and techniques again and again, with different variations, coming from different angles, coming to different conclusions, coming up with new ways to do it. It’s kind of the same thing he admires about the directors he wrote about in that book, and the same thing Tell says he’s doing going from city to city, casino to casino, game to game, hand to hand. Luckily Schrader can probly do this without it leading to any vigilante bloodshed. So I hope he keeps going.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 16th, 2021 at 12:39 pm and is filed under Crime, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Responses to “The Card Counter”

  1. Schrader goes into his reasoning for digital photography here:

    The Card Counter Director Paul Schrader on Digital Cinematography

    To Card Counter director Paul Schrader, the benefits of shooting digitally are vast. For one, the shooting schedule moves faster, affording him final cut.

    So it comes down to “make it digitally, or don’t make it on your terms/don’t make it at all.”

    I lament the dearth of 16mm and film grain and texture in modern cinema, but if going digital allows a guy like Paul Schrader the ability to get movies like this and FIRST REFORMED made, that is a trade off I’m willing to roll with.

    Really loved this one. Is this Oscar Issac’s best performance yet? It’s been a solid decade since I first noticed him in DRIVE, and this might be my favorite thing I’ve seen him do (and he has a habit of showing up in movies I regularly think are all-timers). He gets to reunite with Tye Sheridan and share a scene that’s more intense and gripping than anything Apocalypse and Cyclops had in that X-Men movie. Haddish is surprisingly rough around the edges (she acts a lot by waving her head around, sorta like how Emma Watson used to act with her eyebrows), but she gets done what’s essential and that last scene/shot is one of my favorites of the year.

  2. Something bothered me about this one and, thinking about it, I think it comes down to disingenuousness. The protagonist is all about repentance, guilt, et al, but…

    I feel like the movie should’ve been about drone strikes, instead of Abu Gharib, since that’s a more current and relevant issue at the moment–and something that implicates Obama and Biden as well as the Republicans. By making Tell’s guilt center around Abu Gharib, Schrader’s side-stepping all that and focusing on the Bush Administration (to the point that he ridiculously spends thirty seconds on file footage of Donald Rumsfeld, just to hammer it home), which makes all the themes of atonement and shame feel like cover for just a polemic against political opponents, without acknowledgment of stuff like the Biden White House drone-striking an aid worker and seven children he was with in the past week. So, I don’t know, it just comes off feeling shady to me, like the story’s not really *about* redemption so much as it’s about scoring points in our ongoing thinkpiece war.

  3. Oh wow, I didn’t even think about the X-MEN connection.

  4. I agree that that would be more current, but I don’t think it fits with what he was interested in, which was this phony idea of accountability by just blaming a couple people low on the totem pole for a larger crime. In drone strikes there has been no accountability or admission of guilt. And the prison bid is important to the character.

    Also, there are a bunch of recent movies about drones and, as far as I know, not as many about Abu Ghraib or similar.

  5. Inspector Hammer Boudreaux

    September 17th, 2021 at 4:16 am

    I think there’s also a connection here to the fatalism of the Calvinism Schrader was dealt. God gives us the cards and we just play. You get a shitty hand, you lose. Testing your hand might be testing the will of God. We never see Isaac even think about cheating, but we do see him walk the fuck away.

  6. Dustin, if I may: Tiffany Haddish waves her head around a lot non-stop all the time, whether she is on the silver screen or elsewhere. That is one of my favorite things about her, she reminds me of my friend Melissa who is always wiggling her skull around and gesturing awesomely.

    Her continued popularity is so awesome, but as far as I’m concerned she should be, you know, playing in stadiums. But I’m glad she’s not, because she is doing weirdo shit like making Weird Political Paul Schrader Gambling Movies insisting she should be in a new Cat People remake and whatnot.

    One little-known fact about the great TH is that her “origin story” involves being a difficult kid who found structure, articulation and purpose through The Laugh Factory’s community outreach programs, and was initially mentored by the great, brilliant and moral Dom Irrera. (You know, from Dr. Katz and The Big Lebowski.)

    Not that my dumbass two cents matter, but I think with the passing of Norm MacDonald these two are tied for my favorite living stand-up comedian.

    Dom Irrera Live from The Laugh Factory with Tiffany Haddish (Comedy Podcast)

    Dom and Jamie chat with Tiffany Haddish, a raucous comedienne who came up through the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp and is delighting audiences worldwide today.T...

  7. I’ve always thought that it’s bullshit that casinos consider card counting to be cheating and will get you banned, if not beat up and banned if the stories are true. Using your brain to remember cards and calculating the odds is just playing the game well.

  8. Any game where you can get banned for playing it too well isn’t a game: it’s a scam. They’re not even trying to hide it. Anybody who goes to casinos deserves whatever they get.

  9. Tye Sheridan finally impressed me with his work in this movie. For the longest time I thought he was some Hollywood producer construct but Paul Schrader finally proves he is actual flesh and blood, blood and bone.

  10. Couple things:

    I don’t really give a shit if some of it is wrong (as I read some claim)

    If you’re talking about the several reviews that gripe “It’s called “The Card Counter” yet he spends the majority of the movie playing Texas hold ’em which only uses one deck, hence card counting doesn’t do much”. These have been driving me BATTY because that’s the entire point. It throws him off of his current game of counting cards, and back into his former profession of reading people. He even says this in the narration (he doesn’t mention the connection to his former job — that’s for the audience to infer — but he does say it’s less about the odds, more about your opponent)

    And for:

    one of the most shocking scenes is staged in a way that comes off a little silly





    The decision to literally hold the World Series of Torture is in of itself pretty goddamn silly. It sorta, kinda worked for me but I also didn’t blame the couple people chuckling in my audience. Would it have been less silly without the shot of the sun rising with breaking celery and screaming sound effects? Maybe. But there was certainly a snicker or two before that and I’m really not sure how it could have been avoided (other than a different ending altogether)

    I’m done

  11. Oh, two other things:

    I’m finding it crazy that Paul Schrader is hip again at 80-years-old. The 25-year-old hip kids in front of me in line ordered tickets as such:

    “Can I have three for Paul Schrader?”

    And the teenager in the booth didn’t even blink, like they’ve been ordered as such the entire weekend!



    Schrader really, really, really, really needs to never use that ending again (what is this, the third time? And he ripped it off of “Pickpocket” to begin with!!)


  12. jojo –


    I felt bad for Tiffany Haddish (or her hand double) when I realized well into the credits that it was not a freeze frame. It seems like it would be harder to stay still with those nails.

  13. About “that ending”


    I think this is his fifth time.
    Literal use: American Gigolo and Light Sleeper (plus this one).
    With some variations: Cat People and Patty Hearst.

  14. Saw this on a long plane flight last night, just because I vaguely remembered Vern’s positive review. Really liked it! Mostly because of Oscar Isaac himself and his amazing performance – he is magnetic. He’d be a great choice if anyone decided to remake Le Samourai.


    The moment when Isaac finds out the kid has not in fact gone to visit his mother, but has instead pursued his obsessive mission of vengeance… and then has to go sit down at the poker table… man.

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