An overhand shuffle. A riffle. A fancy flourish as a playing card leaps from one hand to the other. These little touches tell us everything we need to know about The Card Counter and its titular character. Oscar Isaac’s William is a master of misdirection. Not just when playing cards, either. A man of mystery, he’s as cool as he is cold – keeping people at arm’s length as he makes a living from casino to casino.
William is running from a past he can’t face. Eager to leave his mysterious former life behind him, he leaves prison with a newfound ability – counting cards. But the past soon catches up to him in the form of “Cirk with a C”, played by Tye Sheridan.
What unravels is a lot deeper than the casino-based, card sharp antics you might expect from a movie called The Card Counter. William Tell, formerly Tillich, is a broken man. Wrapping his motel furniture in white bedsheets, there’s an air of Travis Bickle about him, even in the opening scenes. It takes a while to figure him out – the stylish, slow-burn of The Card Counter drip feeding details of William’s past through intimate flashbacks until his ‘chance’ meeting with Cirk.
Director Paul Schrader does an impressive job of creating a tortured soul who prowls the casinos of middle America, feasting on the scraps that casinos can afford to lose. He never wins big – even though he could. Just enough to go under the radar. Remain unnoticed. Stay in the shadows.
Eventually, you realise why – William was a veteran of Abu Ghraib and spent 8 years in prison for his crimes. He’s a man who’s both ashamed of his past and clearly worried that he hasn’t moved on, that those inhuman acts are just a part of him. Of course, it doesn’t take much to bring his instincts out.
Cirk is the son of a fellow Abu Ghraib torturer, and demands justice for his father, who committed suicide rather than live with the guilt of his misdeeds. Cirk blames the military, who threw William and his father to the wolves, while protecting their own – the likes of Major John Gordon, played by Willem Dafoe. Gordon was a contractor at Abu Ghraib, and taught William and Cirk’s father ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques. But Gordon escaped the clutches of prison, moving onwards and upwards while the little guys took the rap.
By now, you’ve guessed it – Cirk wants revenge. He thinks William might as well.
The true genius of The Card Counter is that it walks a fine line between stylish casino flick and gritty noir thriller. Oscar Isaac’s William is the perfect foil for this, using his card sharp skills to keep his head above water while inside, his past continues to drag him under.
A romance with stable operator (that’s agent to you and me) La Linda, played by Tiffany Haddish, gives William some much needed hope. But we all know that can’t last forever, and as Cirk turns up the heat on their revenge plan, it looks as though things are going to start going sideways pretty sharpish.
The Card Counter is a slow-burn masterclass, giving Oscar Isaac plenty of room to breathe in the moody atmosphere as he works through their misguided plan. William is wrestling with his demons throughout, and often comes close to defeating them. But like Schrader’s many other protagonists, he eventually follows the road to damnation. What unfolds is a grim tale amid a film noir setting with all the cool, calm and collected vibes of a poker-playing pro. But ultimately, the demons William can’t run from are the ones inside.