The Card Counter

Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish at a table

In The Card Counter we meet another of Paul Schrader’s lost loners, with Oscar Isaac joining actors as varied as Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver) and Lindsay Lohan (The Canyons) as the latest in a series of souls seeking salvation, redemption, expiation in a do-or-die struggle with their own human frailty.

In familiar Schrader first-person voiceover William Tell (Isaac) explains how he learned to count cards while in prison serving an eight-year jail term for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Tell goes into some detail explaining how card counting works – high value cards score minus one, low value cards plus one, the other cards nothing at all – and how it’s useful only when playing blackjack, where it can shift the odds away from the house just enough to confer an advantage on the counter. Aware of the fact that casinos will eject anyone they believe to be counting, Tell stays beneath the radar by not drawing attention to himself – he’s a medium stakes player who politely says thanks for a good game as he leaves the table to collect his modest winnings.

All this changes when he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man investigating the death of his father, also an Abu Ghraib guard, who’d come home from Iraq, got addicted to oxycodone and shot himself. And changes a bit more when Tell agrees, after a bit of hustling on her part, to go in with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a casino habitué who runs a stable of players. Off the three of them go on a journey to win big and make amends for sins committed in the past.

Schrader loves these dark, nighttime worlds but knows he’s in territory so familiar that he needs to make it clear he knows we know – hence a reference to The Cincinatti Kid early on – and there’s a lot in The Card Counter that we’ve seen before. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Tell lives a life of monastic asperity – when he checks in to the latest motel room he removes the paintings from the walls and then covers all the furniture with sheets tied on with twine. Oscar Isaac even apes some of the De Niro style early on, as does Tye Sheridan – do nothing, look intense, nod your head – so the presence of Tiffany Haddish as the warm, open, fun La Linda is a massive bonus. She’s the best thing in this film by a stretch.

Cirk and William at a table
What’s the deal? Cirk and Will

To be fair to both Isaac and Sheridan, when their characters’ personalities shift, so do their acting styles, and both men break free of the gravitational pull of old stars’ star turns decisively when Schrader starts leading them towards a showdown with Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the US Army major and “bad barrel” who made a “bad apple” of Tell and the other Abu Ghraib torturers.

Schrader doesn’t just have Bush-era politics in his sights. In the shape of Mr USA (Alexander Babara), a fellow card player who dresses in the stars and stripes and is followed by an entourage who chant “USA! USA!” whenever their champ eliminates a rival, he’s also got Trump-era America in his crosshairs. A scriptwriter’s cursory attempt to tie the two eras together.

While it’s a good film, I kept thinking, “Imagine if Martin Scorsese had directed this” all the way through (it was the Martin Scorsese Presents splash up front that did it), because no matter which way you turn him, Schrader isn’t a director’s director, or even a director’s second-unit director. But in spite of flabby do-nothing shots and regularly coming into a scene way too early, Schrader keeps the energy up and manages some neat transitions.

If it all starts to look like 1940s noir stylistically and in terms of framing the further into the journey it travels, that’s familiar Schrader territory too. And the added bit of melodrama to wrap things up neatly also suits The Card Counter very well.

The Card Counter – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland and Matthew McConaughey in Mud


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



10 December



Huckleberry Finn published, 1884

On this day in 1884, Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn. It was the second book to feature the vagabond child of a vagrant drunkard father, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer being the first. Huck Finn would appear in two more short books, Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective, but only as the narrator. Huckleberry Finn is a romantic character, the free spirit not bound by the rules of bourgeois life – hence nice kid Tom Sawyer’s attraction to him. He was based on a Mississippi character called Tom Blankenship, whom Twain was friendly with as a child. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was… ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed… he was the only really independent person – boy or man – in the community… continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.” The book’s plot largely deals with Finn running away from his father and drifting down the Mississippi River on a raft with Jim, a negro slave running away from his owner, because he fears she is about to sell him. By the end both are free – Jim because his owner has died and granted Jim his freedom in her will; Huck because his father has died. A wildly popular book for decades, largely on account of its story of freedoms large and small, Huckleberry Finn has fallen out of favour in recent years, in no small part because of the frequent use of the word “nigger”. Whether it is used in a derogatory fashion or in a much more neutral way is what the ostensible argument boils down to. Though there is also a community who won’t rest until all the bad, aka “inappropriate”, words have been removed from language, because they believe that sanitising the language equates to changing society. Hence a recent edition of the book which has edited out the offending word.




Mud (2012, dir: Jeff Nichols)

Jeff Nichols makes films about families hitting the skids. In Shotgun Stories it was half-brothers heading for a nasty showdown. In Take Shelter it was a marriage falling apart as a huge storm threatens. Nichols loves his Americana too, and there’s plenty of it in this Mississippi-set story of boys becoming men one weird summer in the company of a hobo (Matthew McConaughey) called Mud who’s suddenly turned up in their area and is hanging out down near the river’s edge. The boys are not brothers but they are as good as – the mouthy one (Jacob Lofland) and the cautious one (Tye Sheridan) – and Mud is your wayward uncle type writ large. But then types feature heavily here – Reese Witherspoon is the cock-tease love of Mud’s life who has spent a life disappointing him by running off with other men, at which point he’s usually done something really bad to the other men. It’s a Huckleberry Finn story, Mud being the grown-up Finn with a lifetime of knocks having shaped him on the way. And the result? An utterly charming though potentially dangerous free spirit who offers the boys a glimpse of life lived without restraint, but whose every decision has taken him a notch lower in status until here he is, with nothing, relying on boys to bring him food and information about the outside world. What plays out barely matters, such is Nichols’s focus on mood rather than plot, types rather than characters. But there are nuggetty plot-driven moments that cry out for attention – driven by Witherspoon (she doesn’t turn up in any old rubbish any more), Joe Don Baker as a local bad guy eager to get some payback against Mud, and Sam Shepard as Tom (name surely not a coincidence), a river dweller who knows what’s what and who’s who. But let’s not get bogged down in star worship, this is a film about the boys, their last summer of innocence, which demands and gets great performances, particularly from Lofland, who we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future, no doubt.



Why Watch?


  • Nicholls has not made a bad film yet
  • Any film with Witherspoon is also worth watching
  • The watery Arkansas locations
  • McConaughey is acting in this one rather than just taking his shirt off


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Mud – at Amazon