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Terry Hunter reviews ‘The Card Counter’

Published: Sep. 21, 2021 at 10:30 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Paul Schrader has directed directed 18 feature films and written many more including RAGING BULL and TAXI DRIVER for filmmaker Martin Scorsese.

His new film THE CARD COUNTER is both a gripping thriller and an art film with a riveting performance by Oscar Isaac as a highly skilled gambler who’s also a very troubled human being.

Isaac plays William Tell, a man full of guilt and regret.  During the Iraq war he was an interrogator at Abu Graib prison where he tortured prisoners.

His supervisor, the sadistic Major Gordo, played by Willem Dafoe, was never charged with a crime even though he was the person who ordered his soldiers to brutalize the prisoners.

But Tell, like all the men who posed for photos with their victims, was sent to prison. He was there for eight and a half years. And that’s where he learned to count cards. Now he makes a lonely, marginal living as a gambler in second rate casinos. But the guilt never leaves him and the way he’s chosen to live is a form of self punishment.

One night he meets Tiffany Haddish as La Linda.

La Linda: I’ve watched you play poker and I wonder why you play for such low stakes. You’re a crackerjack.

Tell: I keep to modest goals.

Linda: You count cards, right?

Tell: I’m not that smart.

Linda: But you win. You need someone to stake you.

Tell: That’s what you do? You run a stable?

Linda: I’m always looking for a good thoroughbred.

Tell: I prefer to work under the radar.

On another night he meets Ty Sheridan as Cirk, the son of a man Tell worked with at Abu Graib. Cirk tells him that his dad was so traumatized by what he’d done to prisoners, he committed suicide. And now Cirk wants revenge against the Major who ordered the torture.

Tell: You’ve located John Gordo. What next?

Cirk: Torture him and kill him.

Tell: This isn’t very well thought out.

Cirk: And that’s why I need a partner, a guy like you.

Of course, Tell believes Cirk is making a big mistake. “Nothing can justify what we did,” he tells the boy. “Your father understood that.”

Tell thinks that if he can keep Cirk from carrying out his revenge mission, and if he can earn enough money to pay the misguided kid’s debts, maybe he can find some redemption for himself.

So he asks La Linda to back him after all. And he invites Cirk to travel with him from one casino to another.

I was grateful to Schrader for not being graphic with the relatively small amount of violence he shows. And except for the developing romance between Tell and La Linda, I was completely surprised by where his story took me.

Be assured this is one very fine movie with a strong original score that perfectly sets the tone in every scene. This is one of Schrader’s very best efforts.

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