Beginning with narration from William Tell (Oscar Isaac), we find out key details about this character’s past. Some of the important details include the fact William served a long time in prison and, while bored behind bars, he decided to learn and master the skill of card counting. In the present day, we learn that William is quite smart when gambling and winning money. He generally enjoys keeping to himself and obeying his strict rules when interacting with others. But things change dramatically when William is approached by two different people while visiting casinos.
One of them is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who sees strong potential in William to the point she offers him a backer to allow him to play bigger games with hopes of winning large. The other is a young man Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who seeks revenge against the man responsible for his father’s death. At first, William has zero interest in entertaining either approach, but he soon has a change of heart, especially for Cirk, who is struggling in life with debt over his head and a thirst for revenge. Seeing his old self in Cirk, William decides to play big financially to help him before it’s too late. Can William win big at the tables to help Cirk and himself, and secondly, will he be successful and save Cirk from going down a dark path before it’s too late?
For those who are not aware, the film was directed and written by Paul Schrader, and The Card Counter is a crime thriller with moments of drama. When the film begins, William introduces himself, but his character is quite vague, including how he ended up in jail in the past. Throughout the film, I questioned if William was just a smart man skilled with cards or perhaps a dangerous man who no one should mess with. As the film progresses, it graciously gives more insight and deeper detail into William’s past.
The leading performance from Oscar Isaac was the biggest strength of this film, and his wonderful performance was most of the reason why I enjoyed watching the character of William. His character is mysterious, but the way Oscar Isaac presents William is also somewhat unsettling. While watching, I honestly didn’t know what kind of person he would become by the film’s end. The mystery of William’s past kept me guessing multiple times.
As a plot, there’s not much here to speak about. The story is simple and basic- William does something out of his comfort zone and decides to step out to help a random stranger. William’s choices and certain plot details do feel vague at times and unclear, but again, it’s the performance by Oscar Isaac that allows us to forgive plot details. Actors Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan are fine here, but I found their performance nothing overly new or outstanding. While I was excited to see William Dafoe on screen, he, too, feels somewhat wasted with his role, and his screen presence is also far shorter than expected.
Visually, The Card Counter is pleasing. The shots of William in the various casinos are colourful and eye-catching. The audio track is great as the film is dialogue-heavy; everything is easy to hear and crisp details are brought to life. There are moments when characters deliver lengthy monologues (mostly Oscar Isaac), and I enjoyed seeing the camera pan around the actors while they spoke or the camera zooming in to build tension and create the mood.
Overall, while carrying a simple premise and plot, the biggest highlight of The Card Counter is the leading performance by Oscar Isaac, who is brilliant. While the plot and the leading character are mysterious, and many aspects will have their audience guessing, the entire film has multiple moments that feel vague and unclear. The supporting cast, including Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan, is fine here, but they generally deliver nothing new or overly exciting. The entire film feels like it’s sitting on a good hand, but I couldn’t help think it could have been far greater as the credits rolled.