It’s a weight which can never be removed.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) doesn’t like to be noticed. Not because he’s a Swiss folk hero who proved his marksmanship by shooting an apple off his son’s head, but because his past is full of demons he’d just as soon leave behind during the daylight since the nightmares are coming while he sleeps either way. Card games are currently holding them at bay after an eight-year stint in Leavenworth. The counting systems he learned while in jail have made him practically unbeatable at the blackjack table and, coupled with his ability to read people, almost as good with poker. Tell travels the country, hitting a new casino every day while living in motels off the winnings—just enough to exist comfortably and not enough to find himself blacklisted.
Even so, he remains difficult to miss. One such person with an eye on his talent is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). She goes so far as recruiting an acquaintance of Tell’s to bring him to her under the guise of coincidence for a pitch: let the deep-pocketed investors she works for stake him in the big tournaments and make them all rich. He quickly declines with a smile before later walking past a convention sign with a name he can’t miss (Willem Dafoe‘s Gordo). It’s there in the audience that one more spark of recognition occurs when young Cirk (Tye Sheridan) clocks him the moment he sits down. Unlike La Linda, however, he doesn’t know Tell from his card playing prowess. Cirk knows him because of those demons.
A shrewd little triangle of convenience and selfishly motivated back-scratching is formed by writer/director Paul Schrader to ensure his latest, The Card Counter, has enough momentum to arrive at a climax we all know is coming while still maintaining an effective air of mystery. You see, Cirk has a proposition of his own—one that deals in violence. Had they met a few years ago, Tell may have jumped at the opportunity. Instead, he’s on the other side of that rage. Where he once saw his sentence as punishment for another man’s crime, Tell has come to the realization that he’s the sole source of responsibility for his own actions regardless of whether someone else was pulling the strings. He also knows Cirk can’t reach that realization alone.
He therefore calls La Linda with a change of heart and invites Cirk along for the ride. The hope is that the money Tell will inevitably win on the professional circuit en route to the World Series of Poker in Vegas might be enough to shift his young counterpart’s motives. His assumption is that Cirk’s desire to enact violent revenge is a product of recent bad luck. His mother is gone, his father is dead, and college left him with debt rather than a diploma. What else is there to do besides hurt the man he believes lit the match that destroyed his life? If Tell can distract Cirk long enough with the gambling to supply the money and push to reconnect with family, he might save him.
The journey isn’t going to be “fun,” though. Tell is a severe guy who wears his trauma on his sleeve with a cold, clinical demeanor. He ritualistically covers everything in his motel rooms with sheets tied by twine to dull his senses enough to distance himself from his past and fall asleep despite the dreams coming anyway. So don’t expect them to be partying or drinking the night away. Tell’s refusal to deviate from his routine schedule goes a long way towards keeping his head level, and maybe it will rub off. Or maybe the boredom will simply cause Cirk to think about his anger and bloodlust even more. It works for Tell because his experiences led him to look inward. Cirk doesn’t have that kind of time.
Schrader ostensibly gives Tell a chance at redemption. Cirk is where he was before solitude and introspection dug him out and La Linda is an outsider who likes him for who he is underneath the baggage he carries as penance. He can prevent this kid from following his footsteps and she can give them the means to do it. But real life doesn’t work like it does in the movies and Schrader has always been an artist that uses the latter to deal with the former. Everything therefore becomes a trigger. From La Linda reminding Tell of the attention he got before the horrors he witnessed and performed to his biggest poker competition wearing red, white, and blue while chanting U-S-A, this veteran cannot escape the pain.
We see it through flashbacks both in prison (an altercation/death wish) and before (the cinematography utilized to show his time at Abu Ghraib is this dual fisheye technique that disorients us to the point where we become as off-kilter by the experience as Tell). We see it in the rage that slowly bubbles every time his attempts to steer Cirk fail. Isaac is a powder-keg ready to explode who always looks a fraction of a second away from shattering the façade he’s adopted to give this kid a taste of the fear he needs to put his plans behind him. Sheridan expertly needles him to the edge of sanity while Haddish supplies the possibility of happiness beyond his sanitized rooms of muted input. Tell may not deserve either.
No. What Tell deserves is vengeance acted upon him by those who can no longer comply. By simply believing he could save Cirk and love La Linda, he finds himself doing that which he swore he never would: forgiving himself. It all leads to the only logical conclusion it could and yet Schrader finds a way to give it extra weight in its minimalistic and matter-of-fact delivery. In the end, the punishment he received wasn’t enough. No punishment ever could be besides that which he wrought. So we move forward to a confrontation between two monsters adhering to barbaric rules they made up in their head while their screams ring out in the distance. If Tell is to survive, it’s merely to endure the suffering he’s rightfully earned.
 Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell in THE CARD COUNTER, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / ©2021 Focus Features, LLC
 Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell and Tiffany Haddish as La Linda in THE CARD COUNTER, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / ©2021 Focus Features, LLC
 Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell and Tye Sheridan as Cirk in THE CARD COUNTER, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / ©2021 Focus Features, LLC