Release Date(s)2021 (December 14, 2021)
Studio(s)Focus Features (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C
Character-driven movies generally place plot secondary to an exploration of an individual. The Card Counter is such a film. There’s a plot, but a sketchy one. The emphasis is on an enigmatic poker player, a loner who travels the gambling circuit, mostly through East Coast casinos. His backstory is gradually revealed as he makes a living, careful never to win big enough to draw attention from management.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac, Dune) informs us through opening narration that he was incarcerated, did better in prison than he thought, and taught himself to count cards. He uses this skill to support himself by playing poker, winning some cash at one casino and making his way to the next. We later learn that he was in a military prison for ten years because he participated in torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. At one of his casino stops, he’s approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan, Ready Player One), a young man whose father was similarly punished for his actions but never achieved the fragile peace that Tell did. Cirk’s father killed himself. Now Cirk plans to torture and murder the officer, Maj. John Gordo (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man: No Way Home), now a civilian military contractor, who taught and commanded his men to abuse and then got away with everything.
Tell takes Cirk under his wing to make up for all that the young man has lost. Cirk agrees to accompany Tell as they travel from casino to casino, all at Tell’s expense. About the same time, Tell accepts an offer from La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, Bad Trip), an agent for poker players, to put him on the poker world series circuit. He agrees to this primarily to provide for Cirk.
Isaac’s character is a man of habit, ever on the move, staying under the radar and trying never to leave a trace. The intrusion of Cirk and La Linda force him to emerge somewhat from his solitary existence. La Linda sees in him potential for a big win. Cirk sees in him a potential ally and Tell sees in Cirk a chance to put a troubled, obsessed young man with a badly formed revenge plan on a better track, and in La Linda the means to support him.
Director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) focuses on a loner and outsider, an uneasy fit for traditional society. Tell has eccentric peculiarities, such as wrapping motel furniture and wall decorations in white sheets and securing them with cord to simplify his surroundings, turning the room into what looks like a cell. Suffering from insomnia, Tell writes in a journal late at night about his experiences.
Isaac is limited by the role in how he can convey emotion. A good poker player, after all, never shows what he’s feeling. But in Schrader’s frequent use of close-ups of Isaac, he reveals patience, observation, and thought. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, William Tell has time—lots of it. He has no interests outside of gambling, no family, no serious relationships, and no aspirations other than winning small, moving on, and doing it all over again.
The film’s pace is fairly slow, with little action. The emphasis is on the dialogue. To keep things visually varied, Schrader moves the action around from casino floors to lounges, motel rooms, and crowded poker championship ballrooms. There are practically no exteriors, since Tell’s life is conducted mostly indoors. When we do glimpse the outside world through a window or door, it’s a dramatic contrast to the dimly lit, often sleazy interiors.
Though brief, the flashback scenes at Abu Ghraib are intense. Deafening music, shouting, screaming, barking dogs, filth covering the floors and walls, prisoners being beaten, and naked prisoners writhing in pain constitute a very real hell in which misery is constant and unending.
The structure of The Card Counter is kind of clunky. Tell’s interest in Cirk seems awkwardly sudden. We don’t really see the transition from the isolated Tell to the mentor Tell. Haddish’s role is unfortunately underwritten. La Linda is nothing more than the device to get Tell into the big-time poker circuit. The character has greater potential. Cirk, too, seems like a half-established character. He’s tunnel-visioned, determined to kill Gordo, yet has no real plan. Cirk’s life hasn’t been the best, and he’s sympathetic, but Sheridan is terribly stiff and fails to infuse Cirk with spark. His performance is one-note, with little nuance.
The Card Counter was captured digitally by director of photography Alexander Dynan in the ARRIRAW (4.5K) format with Arri Alexa LF cameras and Arri Prime DFNA lenses, finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate, and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.66:1—with one scene presented in 1.85:1. Universal Pictures brings the film to Blu-ray only in 1080p resolution. Contrast and clarity are above average. Detail in Isaac’s hair, Haddish’s blonde wig, poker table surfaces, and poker chips are nicely delineated. The color palette is muted for the most part. The lights of the casino floor break up the general gloom of the interiors. Camera movements are fairly routine, with most scenes shot from eye level or slightly below. Close-ups focus mostly on Isaac and establish him as a silent observer.
The audio is provided in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio with Spanish 5.1 DTS Digital Surround and English DVS (Descriptive Video Service) options. Available subtitles are in English SDH and Spanish. Dialogue is crisp and precise throughout. Chips make a clinking sound when players place their bets, and there’s always ambient sound beneath dialogue in casino scenes to represent to activity of gamblers at slot machines and card tables. A ball circling around a roulette wheel before settling on a number makes a distinctive bouncing sound. Sounds in the Abu Ghraib sequences are loud and disturbing, ranging from painful outbursts, bodies being pummeled, and jarring music, contributing to a general sense of chaotic horror. Otherwise, the score by Robert Levon Been and Giancarlo Vulcano is used economically and suggests a mood of loneliness and melancholy.
Accompanying the Blu-ray is a Digital code on a paper inside the packaging. Only one extra is included in HD:
- A High Stakes World (5:13)
Writer/director Paul Schrader and actors Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish comment on The Card Counter. Isaac describes William Tell as a man shut off from the world who’s given a chance to re-engage with it. Schrader has specialized in a specific kind of character: a loner in a room waiting for something to happen. He doesn’t like to spell out everything, preferring to let the viewer think about the characters’ actions. Haddish discusses “being present” as an actor and getting into character. A poker consultant notes that Schrader “really nailed a lot of the aspects of being a professional poker player.” Scenes from the film are interspersed with the interviews.
The Card Counter is effective at showing the airless, window-less world of the casino as well as the poker tournaments with players squashed together unglamorously, but the film never fully succeeds in making us care about the characters. Tell’s life on the road is a prison of his own making, and director Paul Schrader languorously takes us through this odd individual’s well-honed routine. The script plays mostly on the same emotional level, and doesn’t alter until the very end, when it seems contrived. Though the director enjoys playing with form, he fails to give the film real spark.
- Dennis Seuling