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USA 2021
Directed by
Paul Schrader
112 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Card Counter, The

Anyone who hears the voice-over narration with which The Card Counter begins will immediately think of Robert DeNiro‘s equivalent in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). No surprise there as both were written by Paul Schrader (whilst this time Schrader also directs, Scorsese takes the role of producer). Although the context is no longer post-Vietnam America but rather America traumatized by 9/11 and the war on terror both films follow the story of a profoundly alienated single male protagonist seeking some kind of  validation of his life.

This time around the protagonist is William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a veteran of military prison who has just served seven years for his role in the infamously brutal interrogation camp, Abu Ghraib.  While in prison he learned how to count cards and now earns his living as a small time professional gambler travelling from casino to casino. One day he is approached by a young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan) whose father was also at Abu Ghraib and who committed suicide as a consequence of severe PTSD. He invites Tell to join him in avenging his father’s death  by killing Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) who was their trainer at Abu Ghraib. Tell, however, sees in Cirk an opportunity to correct, at least in some measure, the wrong that he has done. To do so he joins the “stable” of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) a go-between for professional gamblers and their backers.

The Card Counter manages to be both a diverting B Grade peppered with Tell’s commentary on the characteristics of roulette, poker and blackjack (“tell’ of course being a term in card-playing meaning an unintentional reveal) as well as  a substantial portrait of a traumatized individual seeking expiation for his wrongdoings. On the one hand it revels in its depiction of the sunless, rootless lives of career gamblers all of whom you can bet are running from their past, on the other, and this is typical of Schrader, a product of Catholicism with its self-flagellating obsession with sin, guilt and punishment, looking for a way to re-write their future (Tell literally keeps a diary in which, in perfect cursive scrip, he studiously records his thoughts as if to elucidate the meaning of his life).

Central to the success of the film is Oscar Isaac’s performance. He is always a reliable actor but his portrayal here of a man methodically seeking to heal himself should bump him up to the A-list. In this respect his relationship with Haddish’s La Linda is a nice touch bringing to the surface a tenderness one feels both are searching for in their ostensibly impersonal lives. Sheridan, in a role originally intended for Shia LeBeouf, is charmingly strong-headed although I must say that Tell “adopts” him remarkably easily. Also it would have been nice to see more of Dafoe, one of Schrader’s favourite actors.

Alexander Dynan delivers impressive cinematography whilst excellent use is made of songs by Robert Levon Been, former leader of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the son of Michael Been, whose songs Schrader used in his 1994 film Light Sleeper in which Dafoe starred.

Although for a variety of reasons not as good as Taxi Driver Abu Ghraib, for instance hardly having the resonance of Vietnam The Card Counter is still one of Schrader's best films.




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