The first showings of Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter began at the Venice Film Festival on the morning of Friday, September 3, 2021. The first reviews are in already, and on the whole, it looks like this might be an instant poker classic.
Metacritic gives it 84/100 based on 16 reviews. Rotten Tomatoes—which rates movies on what percentage of their reviews are positive—has the movie certified fresh at 100% after 24 reviews.
Writer/Director Schrader—who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull—described the film in his director’s statement as: “William Tell is a man alone in his motel room. He plays poker. It passes the time. He bears a weight. Then something happens.”
It’s an unusual summary, but one that feels appropriate to the tone of the piece.
The movie stars Oscar Isaac. Isaac—whose performance as Duke Leto Atreidies in Dune was up on the big screen elsewhere at la Bienale—stars as William Tell (“the finest, silliest pseudonym a fictional poker player has ever chosen for himself, hands down”—Stephanie Zacharek).
Tell is a poker player with a dark past as an Abu Ghraib prison guard. Willem Defoe, something of a lucky charm for Schrader, has a role as Tell’s ex-commander in the Iraqi prison. While Ty Sheriden and Tiffany Haddish play Tell’s protege and backer respectively.
Hold cards and blockers
The reviews are all full of praise for Oscar Isaac, who seems to carry the film on his back. This is much as you might expect. Even in the world of Hollywood stars, few people are capable of exuding as much charisma as Isaac does when the cameras are on.
“Isaac makes William Tell a complex figure you never quite figure out,” Joe Magison writes for Awards Radar. “Whenever his character takes a turn, it comes as a surprise, though never seemingly like the whims of a screenwriter. He’s just tremendous, essaying a role unlike any he’s played before. You’d watch Isaac in this part for hours.”
But what about the poker?
The cast and crew seem to have been committed to getting the poker correct. To that end, Scorcese and co. hired Joe Stapleton as a poker consultant. It was Stapleton’s job on set to help keep the poker scenes plausible.
He explained his role in bringing the world of the Card Counter to life on Twitter. “I advised on the script (dialogue & story), props, locations, set dressing, actors (principle & 300 background), and continuity for poker accuracy and authenticity,” Stapes wrote.
His work appears to have paid off, something not all poker consultants can claim. None of the reviews offer much of a complaint about the poker scenes.
A great poker movie?
One reviewer, Glenn Kenney, argues that the poker is just set dressing for a story about character. But what poker movie isn’t, to some degree or another?
“So this is a movie that, of course, is about much more than poker,” Kenney wrote for RogerEbert.com. “More to the point, it’s not really about poker at all. That is underscored by the moment Tell decides to walk away.”
The poker metaphors don’t stop at the end of the movie though. Todd McCarthy, writing for Deadline Hollywood, couldn’t resist framing Schrader’s approach to story with a comparison to poker of his own.
“Schrader here plays the long game, winning as often as not by studying patterns, conservatively abiding by carefully calculated odds and not acting on impulse. But just when you’ve about given up on the film and its mostly forlorn characters, the writer-director shows his winning hand, the clouds part, the sun shines bright and redemption — creative and moral — is to be had.”
Whatever you think of Schrader’s controversial opinions offset, the man knows how to put a film together. From the reviews so far looks like this poker movie is going to be one of the greats.
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