There have been plenty of movies about betting and gambling made over the years. More than one of them has literally been called The Gambler. The story is not always celebratory – and the protagonist usually gambles for some deep-rooted reason or other – but, in good films, the main character is always utterly absorbing.
The Card Counter was released in 2021 and starred Oscar Isaac as the troubled gambler whose past obviously hides deep secrets, and whose future looks bleak once he makes the acquaintance of a number of characters related to a troubled past.
The Card Counter Trailer
It may be a while until we are served a gambling movie that concentrates more on the online betting sites that are so popular these days. The premise is intriguing but the lure of a real, bricks-and-mortar casino will always attract our attention as they portray another kind of world, inhabited by interesting characters.
Oscar Isaac plays a professional gambler that we learn counts cards to make money. He is able to escape any serious trouble by avoiding the huge mega casinos and moving on before the winnings get too big and his trick is discovered. Tiffany Haddish plays a gambler turned agent who tries to recruit Isaac into her stable.
One other interesting aspect of Isaac’s lonely existence traveling between casinos is that he always picks out a sparse motel and removes his room of any pictures or color, draping white sheets everywhere to take away any semblance of comfort or record of his being there. We discover that the reason for this is an attempt to escape the past and possibly recreate the soulless military prison cell he formerly inhabited.
We learn that Isaac was arrested and convicted for his role in the torture carried out at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. It was while he was serving his sentence that he learned to count cards and became a professional gambler on his release. Aside from the interest in Haddish’s character, Isaac’s life is solitary until he runs into his past – and his future – at a military convention held in a casino that he is about to play in.
He recognizes that the guest speaker is the commander (Willem Dafoe) that taught him the torture techniques that he used at Abu Ghraib, and was convicted for. Another guest at the casino turns out to be the son (Tye Sheridan) of a former colleague who was also arrested. It transpires that the former colleague ended up killing himself, after not being able to deal with the nightmarish flashbacks and knowledge of what he did. The son tries to get Isaac to join him in a plan of killing the commander and finding justice and retribution.
Isaac doesn’t want to see the son throw his life away and offers to take him under his wing instead, teaching him to become a successful gambler and earn the money he needs to pay off his and his family’s debts. The son seems to go along with the new plan but uses his connection as a cover to revert back to his initial murderous intention.
The Card Counter – A Gambling Masterclass
Paul Schrader wrote and directed this bleak crime drama and Oscar Isaac’s character is reminiscent of Travis Bickle, the main character in one of his most famous films, Taxi Driver. Although Isaac is less demonstrative than Robert De Niro was in that role, the story of a man trying to escape a terrible past but having to confront it in the present is eerily familiar.
Isaac’s heavy-lidded, weary look is perfect for the character of the card counter. There is a feeling that he is so tired and in need of a future where he is not constantly reminded of the past. But also that there is no way he will ever fully be able to escape his past deeds.
The gambling in the film is seen as a talent – and one that he passes on to the younger man. But it is also something that has been able to keep Isaac just about going and a career where intimate relations can be avoided. This is an excellent portrayal of a deeply troubled man trying to do his best to find a better way – but ultimately finding that the past will always come back to haunt him.