Card Counter – Movie Review


Card Counter Movie Review

There’s something about the fickle nature of games of chance that makes them incredibly compelling as a subject matter for films and TV shows. While it’s easy to see the appeal of playing at an online poker site, something about the glitz of a brick and mortar casino holds an appeal that can’t be matched.  

Whether it’s the slick suaveness of James Bond pitting his wits against international criminals, or the everyman who just needs a break to turn his luck around, there’s nothing like rooting for someone who is willing to risk it all in the pursuit of a goal.

Some gambling movies have turned that idea on its head, following the fortunes of those that seek to subvert the traditional view of casinos by beating them at their own game. One of the most popular tales of gambling is the 21, the film that charted the events that led to a group of MIT students taking on the casinos with an elaborate card-counting scheme.

One of the things that made this tale so appealing was the fact that they succeeded, using simple, but not obvious techniques, allowing them to net millions of dollars before being banned from almost every casino in the US. While some of the details have been dramatised to improve the story, the basis of the film was true, and it is this same instinct that has viewers rooting for the underdogs in the recent film Card Counter.

The film

The story follows the fortunes of the protagonist, William Tell, played by Oscar Isaac, who has been incarcerated in military prison for eight years, during which time he taught himself to count cards. His initial goal is to make enough money to live by betting relatively small to ensure that he doesn’t attract attention and avoids any association with casinos, including refusing to stay in any of their hotels.

While this intention is clearly honourable, it turns out that it’s not quite as easy as he had hoped to achieve his goal. Not only does a friend, and burgeoning love interest, try to persuade him to gamble on behalf of her team of investors to increase his winnings, but he also meets someone with a connection to his past.

When William Tell tries to use his skills to help his new friend escape a difficult situation, things escalate quickly and it becomes apparent that he will never escape his misdeeds. The bleakness of the ending of this film is one of the things that makes it such a powerful piece, and the subject matter is consistently dark, covering everything from the way humans recover from the trauma of war to the treatment of veterans and the scapegoating of individuals within a larger organisation.

Critical reception

The screenplay was written by Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese is the executive producer, so it will come as no surprise to fans of either that it gets pretty intense. Schrader’s characterisation of William Tell attempts to convey the huge damage that can lurk beneath even the most composed of individuals and the impact of injustice on those who are its victims.

As more and more emerges about Tell’s past, it becomes clear that this is also, to some extent, a commentary on what happens when individuals are scapegoated for the actions of a group. While Tell was able to maintain the facade of ‘normality’ in his interactions at the gaming tables, the insight into the way he lives when he is not playing is horrifyingly bleak.

Tell transforms every room he stays in into a physical manifestation of his ongoing mental distress, creating blank white cells with no pictures and every single surface covered with white sheets, hiding what lies beneath. While Tell is by no means an innocent victim of the circumstances in which he found himself, his attempts to lead a ‘normal’ life are thwarted by the events of his past in ways that destroy any hope he has of happiness.

Critics have described the film as ‘hypnotically watchable’ and refer to the ‘queasy urgency’ that characterises both the high stakes games and the way the events unfold in the film itself. The storytelling manages to be at once incredibly intense, but also maintains the pretence of being a film about gambling until the characters play their final cards in a game that only has losers.

While ostensibly about the gambling habits of a man very much on the edge, The Card Counter reveals itself as a different story altogether. The struggle William Tell endures is presented simply as the inevitable consequences of a society that isn’t really ready to deal with the impact of the wars that are, nonetheless, delivering traumatised individuals back into its folds.

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