Movies to watch out for: The Card Counter (2021): but don’t bet on it

Poker-face takes on a new meaning.

If you ever wanted to win in the casino, there’s some useful advice here.  Roulette is the game which offers you the best chance betting on red or black.  If you win the first time, just walk away. If you lose, also walk away. The main character William, played by Oscar Isaac, also reminds you that you have to count the cards already played if you want to win at Blackjack.

Strangely, William Tell (his actual surname is Tillich) isn’t really interested in cards at all. He served a long prison sentence in the US for being a guard in Abu Ghraib, the infamous torture center in Iraq used by the Americans after the fall of Saddam Hussein.  He learned the arts of cards to pass the time and, with nothing to do after his release, turned these skills into a career of sorts.

William is a low key gambler because he doesn’t want to be thrown out of casinos for card counting.  He’s a loner, always on the move, a man of habit.  He stays in cheap motels where he assiduously covers all the furniture with white sheets and takes down any pictures on the wall.  This oddity is never explained, but likely reflects his preference for bare rooms.  Probably it’s a reminder of prison cells in the USA or torture chambers in Iraq.

Cirk hopes to persuade William to seek revenge on a mutual enemy but the plot goes haywire.

Despite his under the radar approach, two people notice him.  La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) sees his potential and attempts to recruit him to her stable of gamblers.  Then there’s Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a high school dropout who hopes to persuade him to seek revenge on a mutual enemy.  Instead, William invites Cirk to join him on the casino circuit.  The plot to kill the mutual enemy goes haywire.

But the plot isn’t the point and writer and director Paul Schrader knows it.  The film is about one man’s struggle with his own demons and is strongly in the tradition of Martin Scorsese’s psychological movies.  Just think of Taxi Driver (the cabbie), Light Sleeper (the coke slinger), First Reformed (the godless minister) or American Gigolo (the male prostitute).  The Card Counter is about struggling with your own secrets rather than cashing in on the fact that three sevens can beat a Blackjack.