There has been a lot of talk about the new Paul Schrader movie, “The Card Counter.” Here is a review by our guest reviewer, Jake Jacobs.
A fair proportion of you are no doubt as interested in the verisimilitude of The Card Counter as in its merits qua cinematic experience. From a professional gambler’s viewpoint, how accurate, or how risible, is it? Let me start with some minor inaccuracies, to get them out of the way.
If you are playing at a table where the house edge on blackjack is 1.5%, move to a different table! I don’t care if you are paying cash, even dives hotels will make you show ID, and put up a credit card as deposit against damages. So far as I know, when one civilian murders another, they don’t send you to Leavenworth. I think I know what Paul Schrader’s expert consultant told him about roulette, which caused him to claim that amateur gamblers should make one bet on Red/Black, then walk away, win or lose. Rather than translate what was probably said, I’ll offer better advice: Don’t bet at all! And if you are a pro like William Tell (Oscar Isaacson), you truly have no business betting at all. (Yes, I know about that. And that. And I read that, and that. If you are a genuine AP or a cheat, you don’t need my advice. Nor do I need you trying to teach me how to suck eggs.) Let’s see … Do casinos not mind card counters, as long as you don’t win too much? No. They mind. I have seen rare exceptions, but I have also had friends barred for spreading in silver. It’s possible at Tell’s betting level to fly under the radar by moving around a lot; to get in the hours he supposedly plays he would have a lot of dead time while table and casino hopping. As for the best hand of poker he ever saw, it was not all that great. Maybe I should move that to the Assets ledger, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that poker is a boring game. As is blackjack.
On the plus side, he nails the mind-numbing routine of gambling for a living. Poker is a dull, repetitive game, which requires spending time with not nice people. Blackjack is worse, though you aren’t really spending time with people. There are warm bodies occupying stools, or standing behind the table dealing, but you are not there to interact with them beyond assessing if they in some way pose a threat. Casinos are not fun places where people yell “winner, winner, chicken dinner!” They are noisy, the sounds of slots dropping coins numbing, and filled with zombies shuffling from game to game, mostly harmless, but often in your way. Having a drink at a casino bar is Nighthawks with alcohol. The movie captures the milieu very well, which is why some have found it boring. It’s a movie about boredom.
Tell seeks boredom, or really, expiation. That’s been Schrader’s schtick ever since Taxi Driver. A flawed and lonely man finds himself in hell, and suffers until he arrives at a state of grace. Years ago he saw Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, and has been paying homage ever since. The last shot of The Card Counter is a direct tribute.
In Tell’s case, the sin for which he must suffer is the time he spent as a guard at Abu Ghraib. It was there he learned enhanced interrogation techniques from Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe). He was among those in the infamous pictures, did time for it, and while in the joint, learned to count cards, among other useful gambling skills. By the way, most reviewers seem to think that Tell wraps all of his hotel furniture in white sheets to avoid contamination. I think it is the other way around, he is trying to avoid contaminating whatever he touches. My theory is reinforced because it turns out he is not the only character in the film with this eccentricity.
After years of aimless gambling, he has three encounters in a short span which will set him on a path to either death or redemption. One is with Gordo, now a security consultant. Another is with Cirk “with a C” (Tye Sheridan), a boy whose father was another guard whose life was ruined by his service at Abu Ghraib. Cirk wants to kill Gordo, and thinks Tell will help him do it. Finally, there is La Linda (Tiffany Hadish). She is a middleman between backers, and those they back. I have met backers, and I have met those they back, but I have never seen middle management. Color me skeptical. And if there is such a profession, I’d expect they would stay put in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or wherever the backers are, rather than following one horse from her stable to places like Biloxi. Never mind; a love interest was needed, and it is easier to have her follow the action, than the other way around.
It isn’t a great film, but if you like serious films and don’t require a lot of action to soothe your ADHD, it is a solid one. I suppose we can call Tell and La Linda the King and Queen of the story, Gordo is certainly a Knave, Schrader is an Ace screenwriter, and Cirk is the Joker in the deck. That gives us a high straight of a movie. Not a flush, or full house, but a high straight is more than enough for a call.