Movie Review: The Card Counter

The Card Counter is a film that immerses us in the gambling world, brought to life by the talented writer-director Paul Schrader and producer Martin Scorsese. From the first shot of the queen of spades, the film sets a somber tone as we follow a man’s unyielding journey through the dark underbelly of sin.

Schrader expertly weaves a tale of masculinity, hope, and despair, similar to his previous work and the iconic screenplay for the 1976 classic Taxi Driver. However, this time, the protagonist’s journey is further complicated by the presence of a young man he seeks to protect, perhaps a version of his younger self. Below, we will look closely at the plot, characters, and performances to explore the nuances and complexities of this gripping drama.

Will Tell’s Character & Story

As the movie opens, we see Tell (played by Oscar Isaac) on a slow, methodical roll, moving from one casino to another and carefully sizing up his competition. In voice-over, Tell sketches his background as a boy afraid of confined spaces and how detention changed him, omitting exactly how he went from Abu Ghraib to Leavenworth. What matters is the now, the routine, and how Tell scans the room and keeps his distance. His life has shrunk to the dimensions of a gambling table, his current battlefield.

However, he finds two reasons to keep going – La Linda (played by Tiffany Haddish) and Cirk (played by Tye Sheridan), the son of a military vet who served with Will. Cirk’s father’s guilt compelled him to kill himself, and Cirk wanted to abduct the military contractor who trained the torturers and got off scot-free.

The Odd Trio and Their Performances

The movie’s three main characters – Will, La Linda, and Cirk – come together in an unusual alliance that adds depth and complexity to the story. The credit for this is due to the cast’s exceptional performances and the plot’s intricacies. Each character has a unique backstory and motivations, which are revealed gradually throughout the film.

What Are Their Motifs?

William Tell delivers a quietly intense and brooding performance, whose disciplined approach to gambling masks the trauma of his past. Tiffany Haddish, on the other hand, is an unlikely but inspired casting choice as La Linda, a calm and collected professional poker gambler who offers Tell a way out of his stagnant routine.

Finally, Tye Sheridan brings a compelling mix of vulnerability and dangerous impulsiveness to his role as Cirk, the troubled teenager whose arrival throws Tell’s life into chaos. Despite their vastly different backgrounds and motivations, the three characters complement each other unexpectedly and form a fascinating dynamic that propels the story forward.

What Are Their Performances?

The trio’s experience at the casino is a central part of the film’s slow-burn storytelling. It’s similar to the tension that players face in live casino roulette. A gambling destination is where time seems to stand still, and the absence of windows and clocks creates an eternal present that suits Tell’s routine.

However, the arrival of La Linda and Cirk disrupts Tell’s familiar surroundings and forces him to confront the stagnancy of his life. The characters’ performances bring enigmatic and clarifying notes to the plot, with each character revealing different facets of their personality in response to the high-stakes environment.

The gliding camera captures Tell’s hushed conversations and walkabouts through the carpeted passages, heightening the tension and creating a sense of claustrophobia. The limits of the casino have worked for Tell, but they can only hold him for so long, and the inevitability of violence looms on the horizon.

Comparison to Schrader’s Other Films

Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter is similar to his other works, particularly his explorations of men grappling with their inner demons and a sense of isolation from the world.
This theme of the solitary man in a room appears in several of Schrader’s films, including his most well-known script for Taxi Driver and movies he has directed, like Light Sleeper and First Reformed. In these films, we see men alienated from the world around them, struggling with existential questions and trying to find meaning in their lives. While The Card Counter shares many of these themes, it also stands apart from Schrader’s other “Man at a Table” movies in some significant ways. And here is how.

The protagonist

First, William Tell is more sympathetic than Travis Bickle or John LeTour in Light Sleeper. Isaac’s performance brings a sensitivity to Tell, making him more human and relatable than some of Schrader’s previous antiheroes.


Another notable difference is the focus on gambling, which provides a unique lens through which to explore Tell’s character. Schrader utilizes the world of casinos and professional card playing to offer a unique perspective on the character of William Tell. This setting contrasts the urban landscapes of “Taxi Driver” and “Light Sleeper,” which focus on the gritty underworld of New York City.

Additionally, while previous Schrader films have explored themes such as male prostitution and drug culture, “The Card Counter” uses gambling to examine the complexities of Tell’s character. As such, the character’s disinterest in celebrity gambling distinguishes this and other “man at a table” Schrader films. In “First Reformed,” environmental concerns take center stage, further highlighting the diverse subject matter in the director’s filmography.

A Final Word

This is a movie that, of course, uses poker as a backdrop to explore its central character, but it’s not really about poker at all. That is underscored by the moment Tell decides to walk away. The game is just a thing Will does, but he’s dismissive of all that’s attached to it.

Overall, The Card Counter is a fascinating addition to Schrader’s oeuvre, building on the themes and motifs defining his career while offering something new and fresh. It will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Schrader’s previous work, but it also stands as a thought-provoking and engaging drama.

The Card Counter is a must-see for fans of psychological thrillers and character-driven dramas. The film showcases Paul Schrader’s impressive skills as a director and storyteller with its well-crafted narrative, outstanding performances, and thought-provoking themes.

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