In this review, Gemma Creagh rolls the dice for The Card Counter.
In the grim, obnoxious setting of second-rate casinos, William “Tell” Tillich (Oscar Isaac) is an ex-con who makes a modest living through low-stakes gambling. Via his monotone voice over, Tell paints a picture of a tragic, isolated figure caught up in the technicalities of counting cards but who has nothing to ultimately play for. That is until Tell is approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of Tell’s former colleague from his deployment at Abu Ghraib. Blinded by rage, Cirk attempts to enlist Tell to get revenge against Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Now a wealthy private contractor, Gordo was the man responsible for implementing torture and interrogation techniques but walked away professionally unscathed when the scandal broke, while Tell and Cirk’s father paid a heavy price.
As an attempt to distract Cirk from his half-baked plan, Tell invites him on the road, introducing him to the world of professional gambling. At a poker table, Tell runs into La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who works for a group of investors who back gamblers for a portion of their winnings. Now with something to play for – the money to get Cirk back into college and on the right path – Tell finally accepts La Linda’s offer of financial backing, as well as all the strings that go along with it. However, his attempts at finding redemption for Cirk are soon stalled by a series of unfortunate complications.
By watching the trailer, you might assume that this is a thriller of sorts, or perhaps a particularly heavy heist-style film. In reality, The Card Counter is a rather slow-burning character piece. No stranger to developing a script, Writer/Director Paul Schrader wrote, or co wrote, some of Martin Scorsese’s most iconic films – including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. And there are certainly similar threads throughout his more recent work. This film focuses on Tell’s desperation and isolation, the failings of the system, and his cursed quest for redemption. While at the core of this film, there are some substantial, and rather meaty questions about humanity, as well as a real understanding of the world of gambling. Unfortunately the execution just isn’t quite there – the implication being that perhaps Schrader works best creatively with a collaborator.
The main issue lies in the script. The supporting characters La Linda and Cirk aren’t fully formed. Having a heavy hitter like Tiffany Haddish on the cast is immediately exciting. Is she a sardonic, hardened criminal? A darkly comic, self-destructive gambler? No. In this world dominated by ex-cons and tough guys, a world where La Linda has found success against all the odds, her character is a doe-eyed ingenue-type who wears her heart on her sleeve. It’s no surprise that on first glance, this film appears to fail the Bechdel Test. While Cirks motivation (the fact he’s going to murder the man who turned his dad into an insufferable asshole, and not put any blame on his abusive father) is also missing a few logical conclusions. Then classic bad guy William Dafoe is desperately underutilised as an absentee antagonist. This leaves a lot of pressure on Tell, and although Isaac does a decent job in his portrayal, he simply doesn’t have the gravitas to carry the entire weight of the film.
Together with DOP Alexander Dynan, Shrader curates the aesthetics of the world well. The visuals capture the depressing grittiness of the gambling circuit, and contrast well against the strong concrete lines of the military prison; meanwhile, the distorted lens in the Abu Ghraib scenes, mixed with the manic soundtrack add intensity to Tell’s flashbacks. The sound mix is jarring at times, the constant noise of slot machines often bleeds over dialogue, and the ADR sits too crisp over the ambient sounds in certain scenes.
While not every film is an ace in the hole, there’s still plenty to enjoy in The Card Counter; this story is ambitious, imperfect, but inherently watchable.
The Card Counter is in cinemas from 5th November 2021.