January 19, 2022 – This is another grim movie from writer-director Paul Schrader (“First Reformed” and “Affliction”) that explores moral injury, and men who try to atone for evil they have done.
Oscar Isaac (of the last two “Star Wars” movies) plays William Tell, a lonely gambler who wanders around the country from casino to casino, winning a modest living by playing blackjack and poker, and occasionally spinning a roulette wheel.
Nobody knows who William Tell really is, but they rightly suspect that is not his real name. He is a card-counter, that is, a man with the rare mental capacity to keep track of the value of all cards played from the five deck shoe used by blackjack dealers. By keeping track of the cards played, being able to calculate the probability of the face values of the remaining cards, and the luck of the draw, he can increase his odds of winning late in the game.
Casinos don't like card counters, because they decrease profits, but Tell has figured out that casinos will allow him to play, and win, as long as he doesn't win big. Tell is winning in a game of blackjack, when the dealer looks him in the eye, giving him a look which says, “I know what you are up to.” At the same time, he sees another casino employee watching him. Tell takes the hint, quits the game and leaves the casino.
Poker is a different game, in which Tell isn't playing against the house, he is playing against the other players, and that requires him to “read” the minds of the other players. A great player, he says, “can look right into your soul.” That would be something that Tell would want to avoid, since he is trying to hide who he really is.
Tell glides along from casino to casino without being noticed too much, but he is finally spotted by someone who knows his true identity, young Cirk Baufort (played by Tye Sheridan of “Ready Player One”) whose father served with Tell in Iraq. They were both guards, both found guilty of illegal torture at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. Tell is really William Tillich, who served eight and a half years in Leavenworth, which is also where he learned card counting.
Cirk, whose father committed suicide, wants revenge against Major John Gordo (played by Willem Dafoe of “Nightmare Alley”). Gordo was in charge of the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but was not held accountable for his actions. In fact, none of those higher up in the chain of command were held responsible. Only those on the bottom of the deck, like Tell, paid the price for what they did.
Tell tries to persuade Cirk to abandon his self-destructive plan to kidnap, torture and kill Gordo. He goes to great lengths to provide Cirk with better alternatives for his future. He takes Cirk under his wing, sacrificing his prized anonymity to go on the World Series of Poker tournament to raise enough money to get Cirk and his mother (played by Amye Gousset) out of debt, so they can start a new life.
Tell not only makes a connection with Cirk, he also teams up with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish of “The Kitchen”) who arranges sponsors for his high stakes poker tournament play. La Linda is pretty good at reading people, and senses that Tell is an ex-convict, and that he might be a dangerous man, but is attracted to him nonetheless, and he is attracted to her.
Oscar Isaac gives a very quiet performance in this film, as a man who tries to go through life unnoticed, very much under wraps. He is out of prison, but has slipped into a prison of his own making, living a life of repetition and sameness. Every casino looks the same, and he uses white throw cloths to make every motel room look the same, too. When the wraps start coming off, late in the film, we begin to see just what he is capable of, for good, or for evil.
This is essentially a one-man show. La Linda and Cirk don't really come across as fully fleshed out characters. For that matter, neither does Tell, but there is enough depth to him that we have a pretty good idea of who he really is by the end of the film.
This is a powerful film, and I liked it better than I did Schrader's previous film, “First Reformed.” This is one of my favorite films directed by Schrader (of the five I've seen) along with “The Walker” (2007), but I don't feel the need to ever watch it again. I don't mind watching “The Walker” again, though, since it is a bit less bleak.
“The Card Counter” is a movie about atonement, real atonement, not like that unconvincing copout in “Atonement” (2007). I guess it is due to Schrader's Calvinist religious upbringing that he keeps returning to this theme, first explored in his “Taxi Driver” screenplay in 1976. This brand of atonement falls short of redemption, which is more appealing. It still makes for a compelling story, nonetheless. This film rates a B.
A few side notes: The historical William Tell was not just an expert archer. He assassinated a tyrant, Albrecht Gessler, paving the way for the founding of the modern state of Switzerland. Tell is also a word which describes a trait that poker players can detect in another player which gives them a strategic playing advantage over that player. Tell's real family name of Tillich, might be a reference to Christian existentialist Paul Tillich (1886–1965).
Some critics have guessed at the reasons for Tell's obsession with making all his motel rooms look the same, by covering everything with white cloth. The theories for this that I've read don't really hold water. Major John Gordo (whose real name is John Rodgers by the way) does the same cloth-covering thing at his home, and Gordo did not serve time in prison, like Tell did. That defeats the prison cell explanation. Using sheets to hide fingerprints is another guess, but it doesn't seem convincing to me. About the only thing that Tell and Gordo have in common is the fact that they were both in charge of interrogating prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Why would that make you want to cover furniture with cloth?
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