The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - THE CARD COUNTER | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - THE CARD COUNTER

the card counter review
A gambler takes a troubled young man under his wing.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Paul Schrader

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish, Willem Dafoe

the card counter poster

In recent years "auteur" has become a dirty word for some. There's a school of thought that believes filmmakers should simply be guns for hire with no interest in revisiting the same themes or styles that preoccupy them, that they shouldn't keep making "the same movie" over and over again. I couldn't disagree more with that school, which reduces filmmakers to department store employees who know a little about drapery, a little about garden furniture, a little about washing machines, but not a lot about any of them. If my toilet blocks up I'm calling a plumber. I don't care if he "only fixes toilets."

Students of the anti-auteur school should best avoid Paul Schrader's latest film The Card Counter, as it's very much the latest Paul Schrader film. Good old Paul knows what he likes and likes what he knows. Like his previous film, First Reformed, arguably his finest work as a director, The Card Counter is for better or worse another reworking of Taxi Driver. We get another lonely man keeping a journal in a sparse room as he attempts to protect a youngster while treading a dark path towards his own destruction. And of course there's a woman who offers a ray of light, if he can just summon up the will to follow that light.

the card counter review

The lonely man here is William Tell (Oscar Isaac), who served time in a military prison for his role in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. While inside, Tell taught himself the skill of counting cards. Now he applies that skill to make a living as a card player. He could make millions but he sticks to modest winnings to evade detection. While he's duped many casinos, his skills have caught the eye of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a recruiter for a stable of card players backed by millionaires.

Tell is reluctant to join La Linda's stable, but two things change his mind. He falls for the sassy but soulful La Linda, and he has an encounter with a troubled young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan). Like Tell, Cirk's father was involved in the torture of prisoners, but his guilt drove him to suicide. Now Cirk wants to assassinate Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the private military contractor who devised the "enhanced interrogation" methods employed by Tell and his father. Believing he can turn him away from such a dark path, Tell takes Cirk under his wing as they hit the World Series of Poker circuit.

the card counter review

If you're expecting a buddy road movie ala The Color of Money, you obviously haven't seen a Paul Schrader movie before. Tell and Cirk are two damaged men, victims in their distinct ways of the fallout of 9/11. They're not exactly big on chit chat, but they bond in the manner of cowboys on a long trek toward a promised bounty. Tell is that classic western protagonist who has done bad things in his past but now just wants to settle down on a modest piece of land. If you think things are going to work out for him, well you obviously haven't seen many westerns.

Schrader is working from a well-worn template here, and your tolerance for The Card Counter will depend on how invested you've been in that template in the past. He may be working within his comfort zone here, but Schrader's idea of comfort is still more disruptive than most American filmmakers working today, and of the Movie Brat generation filmmakers, he's arguably the one who's done the most interesting work in the past decade.

the card counter review

Here he takes that very romantic figure, the gambler, and strips down the archetype to such a degree that the glamour of gambling is completely removed. Not since the closing moments of Robert Altman's California Split (the best gambling movie ever made) has gambling, and winning, seemed so soulless. The fact that Tell has figured out a way to win at a game by essentially turning sport into science takes the thrill out of the game – the mystery of every hand is gone. We're never in any doubt that Tell is going to win every time, at least when he wishes to.

But this isn’t a sports movie, it's a Paul Schrader movie. We see this in an early scene when Tell books a motel room and proceeds to cover every item of furniture, even the lampshades, in bedsheets. His motivation for doing so is left ambiguous. Is he trying to recreate the austerity of prison? Does he want a life free of distraction? Is he a cleanliness freak? Is he worried about leaving fingerprints? Probably best not to try to get into this man's mind. You may not like what you find.

The Card Counter
 is on Netflix UK/ROI VOD now.