Director: Paul Schrader (USA, UK, China, Sweden). Year of Release: 2021
William Tell (né Tillich – Isaac Julien looking like a young George Clooney, but without the charm and approachability) is a professional gambler, which means that he goes to poker games, takes on the house and wins. He can do this as he is a card counter – someone who knows which cards are remaining in the deck, thus tilting the odds in his favour. This is something that he learned during an 8 year prison stretch, alongside the idea that you can read books for fun.
As the film begins, two people come into William’s life. The first, La Linda organises a stable of poker players who are funded by people with a lot more money than they have, so that they can enter – and win – high stakes games. William is not so sure about this – he prefers to keep his head under the radar. The people who run poker games are ok with card counters, until they’re too successful and then they get banned. Besides which, William is not much of a people person.
He meets the second person after he sneaks into a talk by Colonel John Gordo which is happening in the same hotel as one of his poker tournaments. A young man accosts him, saying that he knows what Gordo has done, and William also knows. As William leaves, the young man gives him a slip of paper containing his telephone number. William rings, intrigues, and sets up a meeting with “Cile with a C”.
William is suffering flashbacks which give us some idea of why he was in prison. Pictures of naked prisoners being beaten and attacked with dogs take us back to Abu Ghraib where William was stationed. So was Cile’s father, who responded to his trauma by attacking Cile’s mother. When the mother left, he started on Cile, until he eventually committed suicide. Gordo was the person giving the orders to torture, and got away scot free.
There are a lot of meaty topics here, and you can’t accuse The Card Counter of having a lack of ambition. And yet, as Cile accompanies William from one poker game to another, in one car journey after another, from one motel to another, it does start to get a bit repetitive. At one point, Cile says it explicitly. I forget the exact quote, but having first been excited by the idea of the tournament lifestyle he now says that it’s just one boring meet up after another.
A lot of the pre-publicity made a lot of the fact that this is a film by “Paul Schrader, the author of Taxi Driver”, which I guess is what we should call him now. In the opening credits it came up in large font that the film is produced by Martin Scorcese. I guess the intended message is that Travis Bickle proves that it’s possible to make an engaging film about a largely unsympathetic character.
There is a crucial difference, though. Although Bickle is a despicable and damaged character you cared about what happened to him. As William is largely devoid of emotion or character, it’s difficult to feel any empathy for him – indeed it’s difficult to feel anything at all for him. There is a bit of a love story tacked on, but you don’t really feel it.
The Card Counter is the sort of film that some film critics love, about Redemption and Catharsis. It is just not one that is particularly enjoyable to watch. But neither is it one which says anything particularly profound about the human condition. William is such a specific character, someone whose flaws are caused by such extraordinary circumstances. He is an Interesting Dramatic Character. It’s just a shame that he rarely behaves in the same way that anyone would do in real life.
For a film that is about a game, the lack of tension is a bit strange. There is no chance of William losing because he’s just too good. Although we’re not really given any insight why he’s good. A voiceover towards the beginning of the film explains that the secret of Card Counters is counting picture cards as +1, as they’re useful and low cards as -1 as they’re not. Firstly, could an explanation be less interesting? Secondly, the usefulness of the cards do depend on what hand you’ve got.
The intricacies of working out statistical possibilities based on the cards that you’ve seen isn’t even acknowledged. This means that we watch William playing without being privy to his though process during the game. Instead, we see a group of blokes (and the very occasional woman) playing cards, followed by some car travel and motels, followed by another groups of blokes (and the occasional woman) playing cards. It’s not a ball of excitement.
For all this, it’s not a bad film. It’s well filmed, and every so often brings up a potentially interesting conflict, for example in William’s anger at the bloke who plays in a Stars and Stripes T-Shirt while his mates moronically chant “USA! USA! USA!” But in this case, as in many others, having made the set up, the film proceeds to do nothing with it.
The Card Counter is a film that could have been good. Which kind of makes the fact that it isn’t even more tragic.