‘The Card Counter’: Paul Schrader’s uneasy mix of torture porn and poker melodrama

Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directed the excellent Blue Collar and the remake of Cat People back in the day, has a new movie in theaters, ‘The Card Counter’. It contains a handful of interesting shots and some tightly-written, suspenseful scenes. But it’s also kind of hypermasculine nonsense.

THE CARD COUNTER ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Written by: Paul Schrader
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish, Willem Dafoe
Running time: 112 mins

The movie falls apart from the premise. Oscar Issac plays a professional gambler named ‘William Tell,’ not his real name. Isaac’s character was a low-level torturer at Abu Ghraib. The powers-that-be set him up, and he went to jail for 10 years. While in prison, he learned to count cards. Now he wanders North America, playing low-stakes blackjack, trying not to get angry like the Bill Bixby-era Dr. Bruce Banner. He encounters chunky Tye Sheridan, the son of another torturer. That torturer killed himself, and now Tye Sheridan wants to get revenge on Willem Dafoe, who plays a Blackwater security-type operative who ran the prison. He tries to recruit “William Tell” into his plan.

There’s the setup. But then Tiffany Haddish appears. She runs a “stable” of professional gamblers and wants to stake Isaac into playing on the World Series of Poker circuit because he’s such a great card player that he can’t possibly lose at poker tournaments. And that, strangely, is where the film goes off the rails. Isaac is a master card counter. He explains those skills at the beginning of the movie. But card counting is not a necessary skill in No Limit Hold ‘Em poker, where you, at most, see seven cards from the deck at any time and the dealer reshuffles after every hand.

Math skills certainly translate to tournament poker, and it’s clear that Issac’s character has those skills. But he doesn’t talk about that math much, just the idea that he can “see into someone’s soul,” which has limited usefulness when the guy across from you is holding Kings against your Queens and you’re on a tournament short stack. The idea that someone can just pick Isaac out of random at a regional casino, stake him to thousands of dollars, and send him on a cross-country poker odyssey is just absurd. The movie makes it a point to mention that most poker players who take on investors end up thousands, if not millions, of dollars in debt, and then proceeds to throw that away because “William Tell” is that extremely rare poker player who never loses. 

In the movie, Isaac makes the final table at every tournament he enters, as does his most annoying opponent. Even the best poker pros in real life barely make one out of ten finals, and usually either win big or bust out early. As far as I can tell, Isaac’s best poker skill is to say the word “call” very smoothly, and rake in big pots over and over.

I play a lot of poker, so I could see through those holes. However, I don’t engage in a lot of torture revenge plots. But the card problems in the movie made me wonder if the rest of the script was also just kind of macho bullshit. The Abu Ghraib flashback scenes have a harrowing quality. Isaac certainly acts his tail off, and Sheridan has a few good scenes as well. Haddish is a comedian, not a dramatic actor. The Card Counter puts her limits on full display, though she does have good chemistry with Isaac, which proves more important as the movie goes on.

Card Counter
“You see this card? I counted it. It is one card.”–Oscar Issac in Paul Schrader’s ‘The Card Counter.’

Every 15 minutes or so, Schrader stops the dull poker action and lets Isaac have a gripping conversation with Sheridan about torture, and then the grip lessens, and it’s back to more stupid poker, often interspersed with pretentious narration from Isaac’s journal. It’s an intense movie about sacrifice and spiritual redemption. Schrader spotlighted similar themes in his last movie, the excellent and weird First Reformed, which starred Ethan Hawke as a spiritually tortured Protestant minister. But that movie had a tight focus that The Card Counter doesn’t. This new film flattens out in a bloody, cathartic denouement that it doesn’t really earn. It prefers to spend all its time at the poker table even though it’s a movie about counting cards. If you don’t see why that’s a problem, then I’d like to invite you to my next home game.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

One thought on “Misdeal

  • September 20, 2021 at 9:14 pm

    I was so miffed by the ludicrous idea that anyone was scapegoated for committing torture at Abh Ghraib I didn’t even notice the people who made this movie don’t seem to know what card counting is or what games it can be usefully applied to. The only two people to receive any serious legal consequences for what they did at Abu Ghraib only had ten years of prison time between them. The idea that anyone would even think it was necessary to bother with a scapegoat is absurd on its face.


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