“The Card Counter” — A Bad Beat

“The Card Counter” is now playing only in theaters

Bad Beat
 – Refers to losing a hand of poker after getting unlucky. In poker, bad beat is a subjective term for a hand in which a player with what appear to be strong cards nevertheless loses.

How I got tricked into seeing a Paul Schrader film. Having watched an early trailer, edited to maintain the mystery of why the central character is in jail, and being a fan of Oscar Issac and Tiffany Haddish, I opted to listen to fellow film critics, and stepped into a screening of “The Card Counter”. The director, Paul Schrader, flew in from the Venice Film Festival to Telluride for his screening. There was a buzz about this sneak preview and the seats at the Sheridan Opera House were packed. Many people even lined up an hour and half before screentime to ensure that they could get a seat.

For those of you new to my blog, I’m not a fan of violence. More sex, less violence is my preference in film viewing. I’m also not a fan of this director’s work. I didn’t see “Taxi Driver” and found “First Reformed” disturbing, weird and unrelentingly dark. This is to set the tone for why, even if “Card Counter” could be called a timely rumination on America’s failed War on Terror…this was not a film for me. And unusual for Telluride Film Festival to fill two TBAs (coveted spots on the program for repeat screenings of well-attended prior screenings) with a film that was to be released in a few days! It was the cachet of having Paul Schrader in attendance. Any chance to add a big name director to the roster is not to be missed.

Counter to my fellow film critics, this was one film I should’ve trusted my instincts about. I disliked the Opening credits. Something about the green background felt grating and the soundtrack set the foreboding tone for the story. Oscar Issac plays an inscrutable character named William Tell, who’s discovered that prison suits him. Once released, he attempts to replicate the monotony and routine in an unusual way–by becoming a card shark. Traveling from casino to casino, he strips his hotel rooms of all distraction. I love how Manohla Dargis refers to the way this itinerate gambler wraps his hotel furniture as “an eccentric flourish reminiscent of Christo“. Though in my mind, it was if he was preparing the room for a blood bath…the wrappings an easier way to remove the stains.

Into this life of endless poker games and journaling, Tiffany Haddish strides in her high heels and slinky attire with another ludicris name, LaLinda. Why Schrader chose a well-known and well-loved comedian to play the love interest in his thriller is a puzzle. Haddish does her best but I spent my time waiting for her to do something silly to break the tension and I didn’t believe their relationship for one second. It was slightly more plausible than the gambler and “The Kid” setting up life together on the road. Tye Sheridan was woefully miscast as this Kid. Cirk, another odd name, is a son bent on revenge. Sheridan certainly had the petulance down but his character doesn’t seem capable of any action that can’t be performed from a reclining position. He admits to not being equipped to kidnap a trained killer. The jump from listless to desperate action rings false.

Don’t get me started on Willem Dafoe and his mustache. His character wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone orchestrate a heinous torture regime. The flashbacks to Abu Ghraib, even distorted by the fish-eye lens, are cringe-inducing scenes of torture. Schrader makes sure that you understand how awful it was by returning a few more times to show evermore gruesome torture scenes. These scenes are plausible for the story arc but are now sadly lodged in my brain. It’s what I refer to as a “brain scar”. Fortunately, the most blood-curdling, bone-snapping scenes are kept off camera; told with sound effects and screaming.

As the highly implausable story wraps up, there’s not a single relationship that rings true. And not a single plot point that makes sense once the trio of characters become aligned. So I found it laughable to watch the last long shot of two fingers reaching toward each other as if Schrader was recreating Michealangelo’s “Creation of Man” only told with long, lacquered nails. An homage to the film “Pickpocket” others say. Pickpocket exerted a formative influence over the work of Paul Schrader, who has described it as “an unmitigated masterpiece” and “as close to perfect as there can be”, and whose films American GigoloPatty HearstLight Sleeper, and The Card Counter all include endings similar to that of Pickpocket.[9] Wikipedia

A beginning that put me on edge and an ending that left me snorting in sardonic laughter, “The Card Counter” was a Bad Beat for me.

Drinks with films rating: 1 glass of whatever she’s having at the bar (out of 5) for Oscar Issac’s committed performance


  1. Hi Jill— I couldn’t find a place to comment — don’t have twitter or others… Anyway I am glad I saw this review, I almost went to see Card Counter today but now I think I’ll pass or at least wait for it on TV. I loved First Reformed. You have a typo —rings not wrings, I think third to last paragraph. If you haven’t seen “The Courier” it’s really good….streamable on Prime. I considered “Small Engine Repair” but unsure about that one too. Did you see “Respect” or “Annette” ? I walked out of the latter.

    Anyway —cheers to films!



    1. Thanks Kay! I appreciate the editorial note. Haven’t made it to “Respect” but I did review
      “Annette”. It’s in my post about Three Surreal Films. Yes, lots of people walk out of that one. Too bad you didn’t read my review on that one! Could’ve saved you a trip to the movies…

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