Review: ‘The Card Counter,’ starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe

September 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish in “The Card Counter” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

The Card Counter”

Directed by Paul Schrader

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., as well as in Iraq in flashback scenes, the dramatic film “The Card Counter” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos, Arabs and African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An ex-con, who has a dark past as a U.S. military officer, is now a gambling addict facing a moral dilemma on whether or not to get involved in a deadly revenge plot. 

Culture Audience: “The Card Counter” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in neo-noir dramas that explore issues of military PTSD and the fallout of extreme actions made in the name of anti-terrorism.

Oscar Isaac and Tye Sheridan in “The Card Counter” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“The Card Counter” (written and directed by Paul Schrader) is a raw and unflinching portrait of a man tortured by his past and using his gambling addiction as a way to cope. On a wider level, this neo-noir film is a scathing view of the “war on terror” and abuse of power. Oscar Isaac gives an absolutely gripping and fascinating performance as a protagonist struggling to find a sense of morality in a world where many people are rewarded for crimes and punished for trying to do the right thing.

It would be an understatement to say that William Tell (played by Isaac) is feeling spiritually and emotionally bankrupt. Now in his 40s, William spent 10 years imprisoned as a dishonorably discharged ex-military officer in the U.S. federal penitentiary Leavenworth in Leavenworth, Kansas. It’s eventually revealed in the movie’s several flashback scenes why William was imprisoned.

The main thing that viewers find out in the beginning of the movie, which has constant voiceover narration by William, is that he learned to count cards in prison. After he got out of prison, he became a professional gambler (mostly in poker and blackjack), who counts cards to have an advantage in the games. It’s a risky activity that could get him banned from casinos, but so far William hasn’t been caught.

The name William Tell is most associated with the early 14th century Swiss folk hero William Tell, who was a rebel and an expert marksman. It should come as no surprise that the gambler named William Tell in “The Card Counter” is using a partial alias. The William character in this movie changed his last name to Tell after he got out of prison. His real last name is also eventually revealed.

In “The Card Counter,” William is a never-married bachelor with no children and no family members who are in his life. William is currently based in New Jersey, where he spends more time in Atlantic City casinos than he does at home. It’s made apparent very early on in the movie that William is a gambling addict. And, just like most addicts, he uses his addiction as a way to deal with past traumas.

It’s mentioned several times in the movie that William’s past traumas have given him intimacy issues. He’s a loner who’s been celibate by choice for several years. He also has severe nightmares about things that happened in his past when he was a private first-class special ops solider during the Iraq War.

The flashback scenes of what William did as a solider and as a military police officer might be too difficult to watch for viewers who are very sensitive or squeamish. The production notes for “The Card Counter” have a very accurate description of how these disturbing flashback scenes were filmed: writer/director Schrader “wanted the nightmarish scenes to feel like immersive virtual reality—an effect in the movie that feels like descending first-hand into a Hieronymus Bosch-like hellscape. [“The Card Counter” cinematographer Alexander] Dynan employed VR technology to present a flattened, equirectangular version of the standard image.”

One day, while William is hanging out at an Atlantic City hotel/casino, he notices that there’s an industry convention called Global Security Conference that’s taking place at the hotel. One of the keynote speakers is John Gordo (played by Willem Dafoe), a retired U.S. Army major, who now owns a private and lucrative security consulting company that has the U.S. government as its biggest client. When William finds out that John is in the same building, it triggers William into a cascade of negative emotions that he tries to hide. However, William’s curiosity gets the best of him to see John’s speech.

There’s someone else who isn’t happy about John being a lauded speaker at this convention. Unbeknownst to William, there’s someone in the audience during John’s speech who has noticed that William is there and will soon seek out William for a face-to-face meeting. During his speech, John promotes a new product from his company called STABL, which is facial recognition software that’s supposed to be able to detect truth-telling. This technology is supposedly designed to help during interrogations.

After the speech, the person who observed William from afar finds William and introduces himself. His name is Cirk (pronounced “Kirk”) Balfort, a guy in his mid-20s whose deceased father had something in common with William, besides being dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military. While having drinks together at the casino, Cirk tells William how the troubles of Cirk’s father have affected Cirk. After his father’s disgraced military career, his father became an oxycodone addict who regularly abused Cirk and Cirk’s mother. His father eventually committed suicide.

Cirk believes that his father’s downward spiral was the direct result of something that John did. For reasons that are later revealed in the movie, Cirk also believes that William has a grudge against John, so Cirk proposes that he and William join forces to torture and murder John. William immediately says no to this proposition because he doesn’t want to do anything that would put him at risk of going back to prison.

However. William is emotionally touched by Cirk, who seems aimless and depressed about his life and in need of a father figure. Cirk makes it clear that he isn’t the type of person to want to go to college or work in a boring office job. And so, William offers Cirk an opportunity to let William mentor Cirk on how to be a professional gambler who goes on tour, with William paying all of Cirk’s expenses for this training.

How is William going to pay for this road trip? It just so happens that within the same 24-hour period of meeting Cirk, William met a gambling agent named La Linda (played by Tiffany Haddish), who works with a network of mysterious and wealthy people who like to invest in professional gamblers and get a cut of the winnings. Her job is to find talented gamblers to sign with her as their agent, so she can pass on some of the prize money to these rich investors, who fund the gambling tours for her clients.

La Linda has been observing William for a while and admires his talent. And when she approaches him to become his agent, it’s in a flirtatious but business-minded manner. At first, William turns down her offer to become his agent because he prefers to work alone. However, after William gets the idea to mentor Cirk, he tells La Linda that he’ll take her up on her offer because he needs the money for this mentoring road trip. (Although “The Card Counter” is supposed to take place in various states, the movie was actually filmed in Mississippi, mostly in Gulfport and Biloxi.)

Much of “The Card Counter” is about this road trip and the friendship that forms between William and Cirk. Eventually, William is hired to enter a major poker tournament. Viewers see that when William checks into a hotel room, he has a habit of covering all of the furniture with bedsheets and using gloves. It’s as if he’s paranoid about leaving any fingerprints and DNA behind in these hotel rooms. Is he trying to hide something or hide from someone?

Even though Cirk and William learn to trust each other, Cirk can’t let go of the idea of murdering John. Cirk repeatedly brings it up, as a way of trying to wear down William to get him to agree. It’s eventually shown if William caves in or not to Cirk’s persistence.

William’s life is also altered when he becomes closer to La Linda. Their sexual tension with each other is evident in their first meeting, but they keep things strictly professional during their first several meetings. One of the more visually stunning scenes in “The Card Counter” is when William and La Linda go on a platonic date to what looks like the Gulfport Harbor Lights Winter Festival, which is known for its elaborate lights displays that evoke a magical aura. It’s here that La Linda and William hold hands for the first time

Whether or not William and La Linda become lovers is revealed in the movie’s trailer, which unfortunately gives away a lot of moments that should be surprises to viewers. In other words, it’s best not to watch the trailer before seeing this movie. “The Card Counter” has a tone and pacing that are very reminiscent of noir films from the 1940s and 1950s, especially in William’s voiceover narrations, which are often taken from the journals that he meticulously keeps.

Some of the movie’s dialogue that doesn’t involve cursing sounds very much like it’s from the Golden Age of Hollywood, especially in the flirtatious banter between William and La Linda. That’s not the only old-fashioned aspect of the film. As well-crafted as the movie is overall, “The Card Counter” still perpetuates outdated stereotypes that movies like this often have: Only one woman has a significant speaking role in the film. And the main purpose of the woman is ultimately to be the love interest of the male protagonist. All the other women in the movie are essentially background characters or just have a few lines.

Haddish usually plays loud-mouthed, vulgar and unsophisticated characters in raunchy comedies, but with “The Card Counter,” she attempts to break out of that typecasting by portraying someone who is intelligent and is a combination of being upwardly mobile while still being street-smart. However, Haddish still seems a bit uncomfortable playing this type of serious character. It’s not a bad performance, but it’s not as believable as Isaac’s performance.

La Linda is someone who is from East St. Louis and is trying to make a better life for herself while becoming an empathetic friend to William. Unfortunately, Schrader did not develop La Linda’s character enough for her to have a backstory. The closest that viewers will find out about Linda’s past is that she drops several hints to William that she’s used to dating men with prison records. When they first meet, she correctly guesses that William spent time in prison. La Linda also tells William that she doesn’t care about anything bad that he did in his past.

However, William cares a lot about what he’s done in his past because he’s wracked with guilt over it. As much as he’s trying to move on to his new life as a professional gambler, he’s still haunted by his past sins. He reaches a point where he has to decide if participating in an act of revenge will bring him some relief. His fatherly relationship with Cirk is William’s way of trying to get some kind of redemption within himself.

Sheridan is perfectly fine but not outstanding in his role as the emotionally damaged Cirk, who’s hell-bent on carrying out a vendetta. Because the movie is told from William’s perspective, viewers aren’t really privy to a lot of Cirk’s thoughts, except his revenge plan. Cirk also has lingering resentment toward his mother, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in quite some time because Cirk thinks his mother should’ve protected him more from Cirk’s abusive father. It’s easy to see how William would want to take Cirk under his wing, because he’s trying to prevent Cirk from experiencing the same regrets that plague William.

Although the “The Card Counter” has several scenes of William gambling, this movie isn’t about who wins or how much the prize money is in these casino games or tournaments. What the movie shows so well is that William has learned the hard way that people’s souls and self-respect can be destroyed not just by abusers but by people doing damage to themselves. In that sense, William is taking the biggest gamble of his life in facing his fears and regrets, because he doesn’t quite know if he should bet on forgiving himself.

Focus Features will release “The Card Counter” in U.S. cinemas on September 10, 2021.