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Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish, Willem Dafoe
OUR RATING: ★★★½
Crime drama written and directed by Paul Schrader. The Card Counter (2021) centers on William Tell (Oscar Isaac), an ex-military interrogator turned gambler who’s life is shattered when he is approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man seeking help to execute his plan for revenge on a mutual enemy from their past, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Gaining backing from gambling financier La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), Tell takes Cirk with him on the road, going from casino to casino until the trio set their sights on winning the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. However, things get difficult when Tell realizes that trying to keep Cirk on the right path proves to be an impossible task as he gets dragged back into the darkness of his past.
Our Favorite Quotes:
William Tell: I never imagined myself as someone suited to a life of incarceration. As a boy, I was afraid of confined spaces. I feared elevators. When I was old enough, I just wanted to get in the car, roll the windows, and drive, drive, drive wherever my eyes would take me. I was an American kid. Confinement of any kind was terrifying to me. So, to my surprise, having been sentenced to ten years in prison, I found I adjusted quite well.
William Tell: I liked the routine. I liked the regimen. Same activities, same time, every day. The same toothbrush, the same clothes, same toilet. Same stale sweat, stale smoke, stale bodies, stale cooking, stale farts. Same conversations. The faces change, but not much. No choice. I found that I liked reading books. I’d never read a book before, not all the way through. I found a life for myself that had been beyond my imagination.
William Tell: It was in prison I learned to count cards. What separates blackjack from other games is that it’s based on dependent events, meaning past affects the probability in the future.
William Tell: Not so long, Slippery Joe.
Slippery Joe: No, they don’t call me that no more. What are they calling you?
William Tell: Do you have a suggestion?
La Linda: I’ve watched you play. You count cards, right?
William Tell: I’m not that smart.
La Linda: But you win, so you count cards.
William Tell: The house doesn’t mind players who count cards. They don’t even mind players who count cards and win. What they don’t like are players who count cards and win big. It’s about how much you win, and how you win it. And I stick to modest goals.
La Linda: You can get someone to stake you, an MTT, make seven million payout.
William Tell: That’s what you do, you run a stable.
La Linda: I’m always looking for a good thoroughbred. I can get someone to back you one hundred percent, on my word.
William Tell: I prefer to work under the radar.
La Linda: I thought you were a gambler.
La Linda: So, Bill, you ever been to prison?
William Tell: Why would you say that?
La Linda: I can tell when someone’s been inside. It’s a gift I have.
La Linda: If you don’t play for money, why do you play at all?
William Tell: It passes the time.
La Linda: So, Bill, why don’t you pass some time with me? Let’s play poker.
William Tell: In poker, the player does not play against the house. He plays against other players. The house takes a cut. Two things are necessary, knowledge of the mathematical odds, knowledge of your opponents.
William Tell: Poker is all about waiting. Hours pass. Days pass. Hand after hand, each hand like the hand before. Then something happens.
William Tell: There’s a weight a gambler can accrue by accepting financial backing. It’s like any weight a person in debt accrues. It builds and builds, has a life of its own. There also is a moral weight a man can accrue. This is the weight created by his past actions. It is a weight which can never be removed.
Cirk: [to William] You know, when I recognized you at John Gordo’s seminar, I recognized you instantly. I thought to myself, “Here’s a man who might want a piece of what I’m going to do.”
William Tell: This is how it starts. Just a fleeting thought. A daydream. Then it builds, and builds.
'We are each responsible for our own actions.' - Gordo (The Card Counter) Click To Tweet
William Tell: And what is that?
Cirk: [referring to Gordo] Capture him, torture him, and kill him. They made you the fall guy.
Cirk: They put you in hell. Then they blamed you for it. You got the barracks at Leavenworth, and Gordo got R and R in Kuwait.
William Tell: Cirk, you need to back off. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking the exact same thoughts you’re thinking right now. They eat you up.
Cirk: Are you going to tell on me?
William Tell: No. I’m not. It’s your life.
William Tell: [over phone] Cirk with a C? It’s Bill Tell. You want to ride with me? I’m a card player. I go from city to city, casino to casino, card room to card room. It gets lonely. I’d like some company. I’ll cover the costs.
William Tell: [referring to the heavy metal music] Turn that s**t off.
Cirk: Who are you? God?
William Tell: If you’d ever actually been there, you’d never want to hear that s**t again in your life.
Cirk: So, where are we going? You never told me.
William Tell: You never asked.
William Tell: [referring to Cirk] Who is this insolent little pr**k?
William Tell: How much debt you got?
Cirk: Some. A lot.
William Tell: Do you have any interests?
Cirk: What do you mean?
William Tell: Interests, like anything you want to do, an occupation, a business.
Cirk: I got interests.
'Is there an end to punishment? Is there a limit to the amount of effort it takes to merit expiation? Is it possible to know when one reaches the limit?' - William Tell (The Card Counter) Click To Tweet
William Tell: Well, I may want to build up a nest egg, and to do that, I need a backer.
La Linda: Well, that’s a dramatic turn.
William Tell: You woke something in me. I don’t know. It’s the Kid. He needs help.
La Linda: And money will do that?
William Tell: He’s got debts.
William Tell: I build my nest egg, I bail. One year max, then I’m out.
La Linda: I wish I could believe that.
William Tell: Believe.
La Linda: I’m too old for this.
William Tell: [to Cirk] So this plan you have about Major John Gordo, you given it more thought? He’s all nails. You’re not. He’s right out of f***ing Call of Duty.
William Tell: This isn’t very well thought out.
Cirk: And that’s why I need a partner. Somebody with experience, somebody with expertise. And motive. A strong guy. A guy like you.
William Tell: [referring to Cirk’s father] He beat you.
Cirk: That’s in the past.
William Tell: The body remembers. It stores it all.
William Tell: [referring to torture] The noise. The smell. Feces, urine, oil, explosives, bleach, sweat, smoke. All day, every day. Sand spiders, camel spiders, ants as big as cockroaches. The heat, the fear, the adrenaline jack, mortars. The sheer noise of it. And blood. And the only way to survive was to rise above. Rise and laugh. Surf the craziness.
William Tell: [to Cirk] And am I trying to justify what we did? No. Nothing, nothing can justify what we did. Your father understood that. If you were there, you could understand. Otherwise, there’s no understanding.
La Linda: You should read some books. I’m going to buy you one.
Cirk: I’ve read books. What is it with her?
La Linda: Name one.
Cirk: One what?
La Linda: Book.
Cirk: How about Poker for Dummies. I believe you may have read it.
La Linda: Do you do anything else?
William Tell: Like what?
La Linda: Like anything. Go to a park, a concert, a museum.
La Linda: Yeah. I’ll buy you a book on it. It’s called Museums for Dummies. Ba-dum-bum. No, but seriously, you should do something else. Just for variety.
William Tell: I like playing cards.
La Linda: You know who he is, right?
Cirk: All I’ve ever heard was William Tell. Why do you think he has another name?
La Linda: You’ve been around him. He’s a mystery. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
La Linda: [referring to William] Am I in any danger?
Cirk: Of what? Falling in love?
La Linda: Don’t be a child.
La Linda: [referring to William] What is his past?
Cirk: I haven’t asked.
La Linda: Well, what are you two doing together?
Cirk: I don’t have any goals. I’m just along for the ride, one day at a time.
La Linda: I woke you. What does that mean?
William Tell: I don’t know. It was just something I said. It’s just a comment.
La Linda: It’s a odd thing to say.
William Tell: So, what’s your story? Everybody’s got a story.
La Linda: What’s your story?
William Tell: Why poker? Let me guess, it has something to do with a man.
La Linda: Bingo.
La Linda: [referring to her ex] He went outside his zone. He tilted.
William Tell: Which direction?
La Linda: Violence. But he had some good friends who liked me. And they were gamblers, and I drifted in that direction. And they said I have very good people skills. Yeah, I found something I’m good at.
William Tell: [to La Linda] I like you. I like this friendship we have.
Gordo: [referring to college] They teach you creativity there?
William Tell: No, sir.
Gordo: Well, that’s what it takes here. Not everything’s black-and-white. You got to use your imagination. This isn’t about following a manual. It’s about getting answers. Answers that’ll save American lives.
William Tell: What if they don’t know the answers?
Gordo: They all say that. That’s their culture.
Gordo: Tillich, I like you. I think you got what it takes. You got the right stuff. I’m going to put you on night shift. That’s where all the good stuff happens.
William Tell: Gordo was right. I had it in me. I had the right stuff.
Cirk: You know, this ain’t such a bad life. I think I could get used to this.
Cirk: Hey, you ever been on Google Earth?
William Tell: What is that?
Cirk: It’s where I was when I was waiting for you. It’s amazing.
Cirk: You ever been married?
William Tell: When I was in the service, I was a bit of a ladies man. Thought I was. But then the other stuff happened. The narrative was broken.
Cirk: So, how long has it been since you got laid?
William Tell: I’ll make you a deal, Kid. You go see your mother, and I’ll f***ing get laid.
Cirk: I don’t like prisons. Even seeing them on the highway here, looking at it, and you realize, “Oh, my God, that’s a prison.”
William Tell: You know the phrase tilt?
Cirk: Yeah. When a player gets caught up in winning, plays outside his zone.
William Tell: Just like in pinball. And there’s something similar in interrogations. It’s called “force drift”. It happens when the interrogator applies more and more force to the prisoner with less results. The interrogator becomes intoxicated by frustration and power. Any man can tilt. I can tilt. Your father can tilt. You can tilt. I said ride with me. You did. You came along. What do you think we’re up to, you and me?
William Tell: A great player can see right into your soul. He can wear earplugs, a hoodie, a baseball cap, mirrored glasses, a ski mask, but he’ll see right into your soul.
William Tell: You know, I think that you have the wrong idea about me. Yes, I want to win the money. I want to go to the World Series, but then that’s it. This kid Cirk, he needs help. He’s got financial debts. And I understand him. And if I can help him, maybe he has a chance to start over again, resume his education and start a life.
La Linda: And you would do all that?
William Tell: Well, yeah.
La Linda: You have to be the strangest poker player I ever met.
William Tell: Oh, you have no idea.
William Tell: [referring to La Linda] She said to me, “Did you ever see a city all lit up at night?” I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen a whole city on fire.” “Not like that,” she said.
La Linda: You know, it doesn’t matter to me if you did something bad in the past. You can tell me about it.
William Tell: Yeah, I don’t know.
La Linda: What could be so bad?
William Tell: When civilian contractor John Gordo first approached me in Abu Ghraib, he said I needed to be more creative. He said I had talent, but I lacked imagination. Would you agree with that?
Cirk: Bill, what the f*** is going on here?
William Tell: Real life is going on. World Series of Torture.
William Tell: That’s a hundred and fifty grand, cash, tax free. All that’s yours, on one condition.
Cirk: And what is that?
William Tell: Go see your mother. She lives in Fall River, Oregon. I have the address. I spoke to her. I didn’t tell her who I was, of course. Go visit her. Forgive her. Make things right with her. Clear up her debt. Tell her about your college plans.
William Tell: [to Cirk] This is not a proposal you can afford to reject. And if you cheat me, I’ll find you. You don’t want that to happen.
William Tell: I don’t like celebrity gambling. I like anonymous gambling. I did this for you. You hear what I’m saying?
William Tell: Do we have a deal?
Cirk: Yeah, we have a deal.
William Tell: I made a promise to Cirk before I left. You know, he talks about you. He fancies you.
La Linda: You mean he fancies himself a matchmaker.
William Tell: I promised him that I’d act on these feelings I have. These feelings towards you. I think you may have them too.
[they start kissing]
William Tell: The feeling of being forgiven by another and forgiving oneself are so much alike, there’s no point in trying to keep them distinct.
William Tell: [refrring to Cirk] That boy that you shot, he wanted to kill you.
Gordo: I assumed that.
William Tell: You trained his father, his name was Roger Baufort, just like you trained me.
Gordo: What happened to him?
William Tell: He shot himself.
Gordo: So I’m to blame?
Gordo: We are each responsible for our own actions.
William Tell: I believe that. We are going to go into the next room, you and I, and we are going to have a dramatic reenactment. Only one of us will come out alive. I’m going to make things right. Either that, John Rodgers, or I’m going to blast a bullet straight through your eyeball.
Gordo: Who goes first?
William Tell: Me.
[we then hear both men screaming in pain]
William Tell: I never imagined myself as someone suited to a life of incarceration.
[La Linda then visits him, and each places a finger on the glass separating them]