Iraq veteran reveals his hand in The Card Counter

Powerful thriller follows poker player who criss-crosses America's backwater towns

Thursday, 4th November 2021 — By Dan Carrier

The Card Counter 1

Oscar Isaacs in The Card Counter

The Card Counter
Directed by Paul Schrader
Certificate: 12a

AN overriding sense of personal and communal decay flows through this powerful, nihilistic, tragic thriller.

William Tell (Oscar Isaacs) has completed a 10-year stretch in a military prison. During his time behind bars, he has set his mind to learning how to count cards, with the aim of earning a better than usual chance of coming away from Black Jack tables in profit. He is also a mean poker player, and earns a living by criss-crossing American backwater towns and shovelling up other’s chips. Keeping a low profile, he wants to win small amounts, attract no attention and move on.

There is something quietly wrong with Tell – and the burden he carries is revealed after he wanders into a security convention featuring General John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) a former army security contractor at an Atlantic City hotel where he has been dealt hands. It transpires that he was a private during the Iraq War. Tell was given a role at the notorious Abu Graib prison where, under the direction of his psychopathic superior, he was taught how to torture captives.

He was one of the few caught and held to account.

Now, back outside, he carries the burden of his past: all alone, living in cheap motels, he doesn’t want human interaction.

This changes when he is approached by a stranger, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who explains his dad was driven mad by his experiences in Iraq. Unable to manage his post traumatic stress, he took his own life. Cirk wants to find Gordo and take a violent revenge – and needs Tell’s help to do so.

At the same time, Casino regular La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) also wants a piece of Tell. She runs a card sharp’s stable, putting up the stakes for poker players in return for a cut. She also offers friendship, though Tell is wary.

Using the tension of a poker game married to an interesting triangular relationship, The Card Counter provides a moral thread done in a subtle way.

The gamblers’ get-rich-quick philosophy is marked by the misery of the gaudy glitz and the shallow sparkles of the world of casinos.

And there is also the spectre of the evils of war hanging over the plot. The hero is not a hero in the traditional sense at all – questions of personal responsibility during conflict are writ large, trying to come to terms with your behaviour and some how make good is a vital aspect of the narrative.

The Card Counter is original: its dark and atmospheric settings dovetail well with a powerfully tragic story.

Related Articles