Blu-ray Review: The Card Counter

STUDIO: Universal | DIRECTOR: Paul Schrader | CAST: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
RELEASE DATE: Dec. 14, 2021 | PRICE: DVD $14.96, Blu-ray $19.99
BONUSES: featurette
SPECS: R | 111 min. | Drama thriller | 1.66:1 | English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie 1/2 | Audio  | Video  | Overall 1/2

After years of writing and directing stark, provocative dramas and thrillers that fell under the radar, 75-year-old Paul Schrader ignited new interest in his career after being nominated an Oscar for his script for 2018’s  First Reformed, a searing drama in which Protestant minister Ethan Hawke faces a series of crises that test his fate.

WIth The Card Counter, Schrader goes to the philosophical well once again, as he centers on another lonely man contemplating distressing issues stemming for his past and the troubled world around him. William Tell (Oscar Isaac, Annihilation) is a solemn gambler and Blackjack pro who prefers to stay low-key to camouflage his nomadic life and winnings at the table. But his isolated world takes some unexpected turns when he befriends and decides to mentor Cirk (Tye Sheridan, Voyagers) , a confused young man who William later learns discovers has a connection to his past. Tell also gets involved romantically with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, Like a Boss), a feisty gambling entrepreneur looking to add Tell to her stable of card sharks she bankrolls to play high stakes poker at tournaments across the country.

Oscar Isaac is The Card Counter

Tell’s mysterious past eventually comes to light through flashbacks that are truly harrowing. It turns out that Tell and Circ’s father were both soldiers at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War, where they administered torture to the compound’s prisoners. They also recognize that Gordo, (Willem  Dafoe, The Lighthouse), the man who oversaw the operation, is responsible for shattering both of their lives, but Circ wants to do something about it, while Tell believes sleeping dogs should lie.

The ubiquitous Isaac turns in one of his most impressive performances as the conflicted card counter of the title. Like the film itself, he is tightly controlled and mesmerizing, a riveting presence who’s continually fascinating to watch.  Sheridan is fine as his unnerved new ally whose naïve nature may not be as genuine as it seems, and Haddish injects some much-needed buoyancy into the proceedings.

Schrader’s intense tales of lonely men trying to deal with their corrosive anger and haunted by regret dates back to 1976’s Taxi Driver, and include such efforts as Raging Bull, Hardcore, Light Sleeper and Affliction. Here, the antiseptic hotel rooms. drab gambling halls and dedication to concentration that are common in Tell’s everyday life make an appropriate antidote to the hellish chaos he faced in the Middle East. But he’s at odds with himself, attempting to help his new, young protégé get a fresh start while finding his way to face the demons of his past.

The Card Counter is methodically paced but boasts a slow moving dread that’s hard to shake. It’s not perfect—questions arise regarding characters’ motivations and actions in the latter part of the film—but it sure is penetrating and constantly on the threshold of exploding.

Buy or Rent The Card Counter

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.