When filmmaker Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter opens with graphic shots of the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib prison, it immediately telegraphs that this drama will be more about brutality than blackjack.
Haunted by memories of what he’s done, ascetic William Tillich (Oscar Isaac) is a disgraced former military ‘interrogator’ who uses the surname ‘Tell’ and roams the country living under the radar as part of the low-stakes casino circuit, never wanting to draw attention to himself as a big winner. Blackjack is his game of choice, but he also plays roulette and poker.
“I never imagined myself as someone suited to incarceration,” he notes, explaining how he adjusted to a long stint in Leavenworth. “It was in prison that I learned to count cards. You win, you walk away. You lose, you walk away.”
Refusing to stay at glitzy casino hotels, Tell checks into seedy motels – one night only – paying in cash. After entering his room, he begins a bizarre ritual of removing pictures from the wall and encasing each lamp and piece of furniture in white drop cloths, carefully tied with twine. Why? Perhaps not to leave fingerprints. Who knows?
While taking a dinner break between juggling cards and chips, he’s approached by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who runs a stable of gamblers, bankrolled by an anonymous backer. She wants him to join her group to play a bigger game with high-stakes competitors.
Then he meets Cirk Baufort (Tye Sheridan), the college dropout son of a deceased, dishonorably discharged comrade. Tell ostensibly tries to discourage the sullen kid from a devious revenge plot against a mutual enemy, sadistic Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), by helping him to turn his life around.
They’re both solitary, disaffected loners, never revealing their torment or intentions. For them, is redemption even possible?
That question is never answered by director/screenwriter Paul Schrader (First Reformed), although his dirge runs an agonizing 1 hour, 50 minutes.
On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, The Card Counter is a desolate, depraved, depressing 4. Available on Prime Video, HBO, Apple TV & Vudu. Deal me out!