The Card Counter

A high roller of a Paul Schrader masterpiece.

When you see the credits with the names Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese, you know you’re in for a treat. Schrader is the film critic-turned-screenwriter and filmmaker-the same genus who wrote Scorsese’s opuses “Taxi Driver,””Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and “Bringing Out the Dead,” and directed “Blue Collar” and “First Reformed.” And you know who Scorsese is, so I’ll save you the history lesson.

Their names are listed in “The Card Counter” because Schrader is the writer and director, while Scorsese is the executive producer, and let me tell you: it’s a brilliant and thought-provoking masterpiece. This is one that knows the rules of gambling and its stakes, but it also acknowledges the lives of the main gambler, and how he struggles to overcome his demons.

Oscar Isaac stars as a former military interrogator named William Tell, who just spent a dime in the USDB, and while serving his time, he learned how to count cards. He teaches audiences how the game works, how to bet with the right amount of money, and when to walk away. Something neither James Caan’s character in “The Gambler” nor Mark Wahlberg’s in the 2014 remake could grasp. So, to overcome his dark past, he covers the appliances in his motel rooms with fabric, and when playing at the table, he cares less about winning or losing and more about passing the time.

He comes across a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who wants to kill a former Major by the name of John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) for letting his soldiers take the fall for a heinous crime, as his father was among the discharged soldiers. Between William and the audience, he was among them, too. William advises the kid that killing him will deteriorate himself in the process, and he’s had some time to think about it.

Along with a gambling backer by the name of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), the kid joins William in his travels to various casinos. But as he gets to know the boy, he learns his mother abandoned him, he’s in financial debt, and he doesn’t care about college. William wants to give up gambling after a big tournament, and to help Cirk get a better life.

2021 may have regained most of its movie-goers (and might lose some given the circumstances), but I still wish most of the movies from the first half could be as good as the second half of the year. I know it’s too early to tell, but I sense that the Oscar contenders are rolling in. “The Card Counter” deserves to be one of them for really getting us involved with the main protagonist and the characters around him, and for providing us with some of the best images on film.

Isaac gives one of his best (non-commercial) performances since “Inside Llewyn Davis” in the ways he acknowledges his convictions and directions in life. Sheridan has the capability to reach out for greatness as the kid who thinks he knows what he’s planning and needs help. Haddish also provides some charms and romance as the backer. And Dafoe’s small role shines even further during the last 15 minutes. In fact, those 15 minutes are thrilling and provocative.

Schrader writes and directs the film with 70s-80s vibe that distinguishes itself from what movies try to be and wish to be. It’s a gambling movie that doesn’t care about high rollers or losing streaks or loaded dice. It cares about the lives and realities, and what does on. And coming on the heels of “Casino,” “Rain Man,” and “The Hangover,” “The Card Counter” knows how to play Blackjack, and is a good sport. This is one of the year’s best films.

Rating: 4 out of 4.

Categories: Action, Drama, Thriller

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