Film Review: The Card Counter (2021)

The Card Counter is one of the most recent blackjack-inspired cinema smashes, taking inspiration from other classics like 21, The Gambler, and Croupier. Starring Oscar Isaac in the main role and with support from veterans like William Dafoe, the Paul Schrader-directed movie ditches the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas for an altogether grittier and, dare we say, more realistic experience.

In this article, we’ll give our thoughts on The Card Counter. We also have countless reviews of other theatre and cinema productions. For example, one of our other reviews is on the boundary-breaking King Lear at Almeida Theatre.

The Card Counter: Vital Details

Before we get into the nit and gritty regarding The Card Counter’s plot and our thoughts, let’s break down the vital information. Released in September 2021 by Focus Features, the film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival to a generally good reception. The Card Counter is very much Paul Schrader’s baby as he also wrote the script. Braxton Pope, Lauren Mann, and David Wulf served as the producers, while Alexander Dynan was in charge of cinematography.

As for the actors, here’s a rundown of the main names

  • Oscar Isaac playing William Tell
  • Tiffany Haddish playing La Linda
  • Tye Sheridan playing Cirk Baufort
  • William Dafoe playing Major John Gordo

Alexander Barbara and Bobby C. King also make appearances playing the minor characters Mr. USA and Slippery Joe, respectively.

A Quick Synopsis

The main character in The Card Counter is consistently looking for a classic jackpot, but not in today’s popular modern online casino games. Instead, we follow William Tell¾played by Oscar Isaac¾who uses the card counting technique while touring classic land-based casinos in Atlantic City and various other locations.

But there’s a twist in the tale: William Tell was detained in a military prison for eight years after serving in Iraq. This is where he learned to count cards and also where his acquaintance with the evil Major John Gordo first started. Masterfully played by the legendary William Dafoe, the general played a significant role in the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. When William Tell meets the son of a fellow ex-army man who was mistreated and dishonourably discharged by Major Gordo, it brings up his own previous trauma.

The troubled Cirk Baufort is determined to kill Major John Gordo to avenge his father, forcing Tell to take him under his wing and convince him otherwise. The high-octane ride through advanced casino gambling and military-induced trauma follows, providing a psychological thriller that is guaranteed to raise pulse.s While the basic premise is framed by gambling and casino games, viewers don’t need to be experts to enjoy The Card Counter, adding to its widespread appeal.

Our Thoughts on The Card Counter

One thing that’s immediately apparent when watching The Card Counter is that it’s not a flashy casino film in the same vein as Casino Royale or other similar examples. Paul Schrader opts to show the dark and gritty side of gambling, staying away from classic locations like Las Vegas, in favour of Atlantic City and other provincial casinos. It depends on what a viewer is after, but we loved this subversion of classic casino tropes.

Moreover, The Card Counter is a slow burner. It’s much more of a psychological thriller than an out-and-out gambling action story, with the deft narrative throwing up some truly unexpected twists. Oscar Isaac does an immense job portraying the traumatised William Tell, mixing tenderness and coldness to great effect.

William Dafoe is also brilliant as the sinister Major John Gordo, putting in one of his scariest performances to date. Overall, The Card Counter is a thought-provoking and visually striking journey through trauma and the unsettling effects of picking at a troubled past.

What Did Others Think?

The Card Counter performed above average compared to many other similar films, demonstrating its maturity and well-thought-out narrative. It has an 87% rating on Rotten Tomatoes¾an impressive score on the notoriously judgemental platform. The Card Counter IMDB page has a 6.2 out of 10 rating, with 42,000+ votes, but reviewers on the platform are famously hard to please.

The Card Counter earned its place on several end-of-year lists for 2021, including The New Yorker, IndieWire, and The A.V. Club. The popular critic Richard Roeper called it one of the best films of the year, rounding off generally positive feedback. 

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