Ben’s Breakdown | “The Card Counter” Is A Work of Raw, Focused Intensity

Like most movie-watching enthusiasts, I love the work of Martin Scorsese. His filmmaking style is well defined that it helps in the delivery of the story. So, when I heard that Scorsese was connected to The Card Counter I knew that this was a movie I needed to see. However, what I watched was about as different in style and technique from any Scorsese film out there, and this is a good thing.

Written and directed by Paul Schrader, The Card Counter is slowly methodical in its storytelling. It is almost glacial, and yet, the combination of acting along with how the scenes are filmed adds fuel to the fiery intensity that burns throughout the film.

The Card Counter is the story of an ex-con turned professional gambler William Tell, only he has learned to count cards while incarcerated, which he uses to his advantage whenever he is playing either poker or blackjack. As for why he was in prison, Tell used to be in the military and was sent to prison for torturing suspected terrorists at Abu Ghraib. While in prison he became accustomed to the rigid schedule all of the prisoners had and now that he is out he has reduced his life down to just traveling from one casino to another. It’s a simple life with little distraction, that is until he meets a young man named Cirk whose father served with Tell at Abu Ghraib. Cirk and Tell meet at a military convention taking place at one of the casino hotels where Tell has been working. It is there that Tell sees his former base commander, Major James Gordo. When the interrogation camps were closed down and the soldiers stationed there were sentenced to prison, Gordo went into hiding. Cirk’s father ended up committing suicide. Cirk is seeking revenge and wants Tell to help him torture and kill Gordo. For Tell, he sees an opportunity to forgive himself for his sins by trying to rehabilitate Cirk from his doomed path of vengeance.

Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell and Tiffany Haddish as La Linda in THE CARD COUNTER, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / ©2021 Focus Features, LLC

As minimalist as the production and filmmaking is, so is the cast. We are presented with only three primary players and one secondary player. Starting with the secondary player we have Willem Dafoe as Major John Gordo. He is named a secondary player only due to the lesser amount of screen time he has, but his character is so well written that his presence is felt throughout the movie. What he has done in the past has shaped the future for both Tell and Cirk, and those actions play out almost until the very end of the film. As for Dafoe’s performance, he has a knack for playing very hard characters. Gordo is very steely throughout the entire movie and Dafoe plays the part with an almost heartless perfection. For the primary players, we have Oscar Isaac as William Tell. Isaac’s performance was without question the most compelling on the screen. In terms of outward expressions, he was practically a Sphinx. He was a one-note character, but if you looked carefully at Isaac’s eyes he was able to convey every emotion and thought that was going through Tell’s mind. It was the most controlled and intense performance I’ve ever seen an actor deliver. It made his character the perfect gambler with the ideal poker face. What he gave on-screen differed from every other role he has ever played. To act with only the eyes and nothing else, in the manner that he did, should be made mandatory studying in all acting classes. Next, we have Tiffany Haddish as La Linda, the person who convinces Tell to become part of her gambling stable. She is also one of two characters who alter Tell’s predicted path and manages to break through his icy exterior. Her character may not be the noblest, but Haddish brings a lovely warmth to an otherwise cold story. Lastly, there is Tye Sheridan as Cirk. I list him as a primary player, but he was more of the Macguffin that alters Tell’s life the most. Even with the presence of the characters of Gordo and La Linda, it is Cirk that upends Tell’s plans and sends him on a path he could not have predicted. Early in the movie Tell uses gambling terms to describe table games such as blackjack and poker and even refers to something known as “the river.” It is the one card that changes the entire direction of the cards that have been played and therefore the game. Cirk is the river in this story. As interesting as that makes Cirk’s character, Sheridan’s performance was lackluster. He never felt as if he was bringing anything to the movie, almost as if he was just “phoning it in.” Nevertheless, he is a primary player in that his presence and actions forever alter Tell’s plans.

Tye Sheridan stars as Cirk and Oscar Isaac as William Tell in Paul Schrader’s THE CARD COUNTER, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC

Despite the uninspired acting of one member of this small cast, The Card Counter is one of the most powerful movies I have seen in some time due to its tightly focused intensity. Its pace is unbelievably slow, but I couldn’t look away for fear of missing even the smallest detail. The Card Counter is stylistically minimalistic. There wasn’t a single lost or wasted moment on the screen and Oscar Isaac’s performance is enthralling!

Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell in THE CARD COUNTER, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / ©2021 Focus Features, LLC

Due to the power of Isaac’s performance and Schrader’s amazing direction, despite Sheridan’s unimpressive performance, I have to give The Card Counter 5 out of 5 Full Houses, Aces High!!!

Official Website: The Card Counter | Get Tickets Now | Official Web Site | Trailers and Release Dates | Focus Features
Facebook: @TheCardCounterFilm
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The Card Counter

Genre: Action/Drama/Thriller

Redemption is the long game in Paul Schrader’s THE CARD COUNTER. Told with Schrader’s trademark cinematic intensity, the revenge thriller tells the story of an ex-military interrogator turned gambler haunted by the ghosts of his past decisions, and features riveting performances from stars Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe. THE CARD COUNTER will be released exclusively in theaters on Friday, September 10, 2021.


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