Paul Shrader is most known as the screenwriter from "Taxi Driver", but in the last decade he's established himself as an indie director. Shrader has a through line in his films with a middle-aged male protagonist alone in a room with his darkest thoughts and secrets, which they scribbled down in a journal or notebook, with images of loneliness and angst punctuated by voiceovers.
The Card Counter struggles with the "moral weight occurred by past actions that can never be removed".
In "Taxi Driver", it was Travis Bickle played by Robert DeNiro. In "Reformed", it was a radicalized priest by Ethan Hawke. In "The Card Counter", it's a poker pro and Iraq War veteran played by Oscar Isaac.
The Card Counter is another deep dive by Paul Shrader into the pathology of American moral decay and the gambling world is the perfect place to juxtapose his story of William Tell, a disgraced former interrogator who got sent to a military prison in Leavenworth for his involvement in the Abu Ghraib scandal during the Iraq War. Tell served eight-plus years in prison for "following orders", while his superior walked away without any punishment.
During his time in prison, Tell learned how to count cards and do a lot of card tricks because he had nothing but time on his hands and a deck of cars to keep his mind sane.
Upon his release from prison, Tell hits the road and travels from regional casino to regional casino where he counts cards playing blackjack. He never bets too big in order to avoid detection and prefers to stick to low-stakes poker, but in doing so he's also not exactly minting money.
"I stick to modest goals," explains Tell.
He also refuses to stay onsite at the casino's hotels and prefers low-budget chain motels. He covers his entire room, even the lightning fixtures, with grey sheets. In one sense, it resembles the sparseness of a prison cell, but it also creates a semblance of continuity while checking in and out of endless hotels on the road.
During a stint at a casino, he notices that there's a private security convention with his former boss among the guest lecturers. Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) has a swanky life as a private contractor but he was the personification of evil as an enhanced interrogator from the CIA during the Iraq War, who trained William Tell in a vast array of immoral techniques.
The son of a former college bumps into Tell at the lecture. His father was dishonorably discharged from the Army and latest developed a drug and alcohol addiction trying to cope with PTSD. He committed suicide, and his son Cirk (Ty Sheridan) investigated what exactly went down at Abu Ghraib. He hatches a plan to kidnap and kill Major Gordo. Tell tries to talk him out of it and invites Cirk to join him on the road because the gambling circuit is a lonely life.
Tell agrees to join a staking stable managed by LaLinda (Tiffany Haddish) because he wants to play in bigger buy-in tournaments in order to make some extra cash to help Cirk get out of debt and return to school. Tell goes deep in a couple of WSOP Circuit events, but he has his eye on an inevitable huge score in Las Vegas at the WSOP.
Like all of Shrader's film, there's an inevitable descent into darkness and insanity before the "guy alone in the room" finds redemption and salvation. I won't reveal any spoilers about the crescendo of violence that builds up toward the final scene.
The Card Counter was filmed on location in Biloxi, MS, and you'll see a lot of familiar casino properties like the Golden Nugget and the Scarlet Pearl.
Captain Tom Franklin makes an appearance at one of the WSOP Circuit final tables. Joe Stapleton was hired as the poker consultant on the film, so the poker scenes have an air of believability. Stapes did a great job in that department because all of the poker scenes seem authentic and not cheesy at all like you'll see in so many other mainstream flicks that try to incorporate poker.
Do not expect The Card Counter to be added to a Top 10 list of all-time poker movies any time soon. It's not a road film or buddy flick of gamblers like Mississippi Grind (which is one of my favorite poker/gambling films released in the last decade). But if you like dark and violent thrillers, then The Card Counter will be up your alley.