‘The Card Counter’ Review: The House Always Wins


Jackson Piercy

William Tell (Oscar Issac) making his move. Photo from imdb.com.

It’s hard to explain to people why I like this movie. In terms of everything that has been in the cinema throughout the last few years, this is probably the most lowkey film, in terms of execution, that I’ve seen in a long time. Paul Schrader has had something of an odd career in my eyes, starting out writing a few Martin Scorsese pictures that you might have heard of, “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” then seemingly falling off the face of the earth. That is until he came out of nowhere and hit audiences with “First Reformed” in 2017. In the wake of that, we have a picture that looks to advance a complex web of a plot through a singular character and his dialogue.

William Tell (Oscar Issac), our titular “Card Counter,” learned how to do so with some spare time he found during a ten-year prison sentence. He goes from town to town, hitting the occasional casino, playing them for small scores through his methods and disappearing before anyone is the wiser. Why was he in jail? He committed a few war crimes in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and seeing as he was in the photos that soldiers were taking with their tortured subjects, he got the short end of the stick while most of the superior officers got off without as much as a slap on the wrist.

On his counting escapades, Tell runs into one of those superiors, Maj. John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) presenting about something or another at a law enforcement expo. At this presentation, Tell also runs into one of the children of one of his co-conspirators, Cirk (Tye Sheridan). Cirk is looking to get some payback for what Gordo did to his dad, and Tell looks to try to steer Cirk in the right direction. All the while, Tell’s gambling adventures have a prospective financial backer, represented by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a woman for whom Tell has some seemingly unspoken feelings for. Will they? Won’t they? Don’t get your hopes up for anything, because everything is viable to happen in this one.

What I think is most striking here is the nearly complete lack of pizzazz. Outside of the flashback scenes and the occasional driving montage, this movie feels about as real as it can get while remaining a movie. With all the action that’s been frequenting the movies very recently, this is a very welcome change of pace. The weight that’s been put on Oscar Issac’s shoulders to carry a plot this dense, with little more than the occasional monologue and the permanent poker face is incredible, but by God does he do it. I think he deserves as much acclaim as anybody else in the industry — I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad performance from him. That’s not to discount Sheridan and Haddish, who put in performances that are just right for this picture, but I have to say that Issac just knocks this one out of the park. Watch for the monologue that Tell gives to Cirk about what he did at Abu Ghraib to see what I mean.

This movie isn’t what one would call “exciting”. This is the slow burn’s slow burn. This is the film equivalent of watching a crock pot try to boil water. Does that mean it’s a bad time? Well, if you want to miss out on one of the best performances of the year, then you can go ahead and skip this one. If you appreciate Paul Schrader’s craft and liked his work on his Scorsese pictures and “First Reformed,” then this is absolutely the film for you! If you’re patient, this film will reward you.