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A super-controlled small-time gambler risks his emotions and his freedom in Paul Schrader's The Card Counter in Inverness Film Festival's opening preview screening

By Margaret Chrystall

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Inverness Film Festival

REVIEW: The Card Counter (15+)

“I keep to modest goals,” says card counting gambler and ex-serviceman William Tell (Oscar Isaac), just after he meets LaLinda (Tiffany Haddish), about to be the second most powerful presence in his life, in this Paul Schrader film, with Martin Scorsese on board as an executive producer.

Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell in The Card Counter. Picture: Focus Features
Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell in The Card Counter. Picture: Focus Features

Set in thick-carpeted American casinos to the hushed sound of slot machines and clinking ice, the story reveals the highly-controlled world Tell or Bill has created for himself. He reconfigures every motel room he occupies, choosing not to stay in the big casinos where he makes his unspectacular but regular winnings.

But LaLinda, who runs a stable of gamblers for investors, entices him to join her, though it’s against his instincts.

They meet and LaLinda reminds him: “We’ve met before, three times?”

“No, four, he says and recounts each place in detail.

It’s a hint of two things.

The first, that this beautiful woman has caught his attention before – from the moment he has met her, clearly.

Secondly, he observes the world around him minutely, trying to understand it.

Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell and Tiffany Haddish as La Linda in The Card Counter. Picture: Focus Features
Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell and Tiffany Haddish as La Linda in The Card Counter. Picture: Focus Features

At the back of that, we discover in flashback that he has a past he would rather forget, recruited from the services to joint the staff torturing inmates at Iraq's Abu Ghraib – too-loud rock music, men in hoods and beatings, part of the labyrinth he takes us to in his mind.

He went to prison for it, the chief instigator, Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe) remained free to be a security consultant, as we discover when Tell meets up with a young man (Tye Sheridan), determined to get his revenge on the consultant whose regime caused tragedy in his family.

In what is an intense performance from Oscar Isaac, Tell wants to help save him from himself and offers the young man Cirk “with a C” the chance to travel to casinos with him, while signing up to join La Linda, all of them heading for the world poker championships.

What follows is the study of a man who needs to be free for his sanity, compromising that to throw in his lot with an odd, almost-family with La Linda and the impulsive young Cirk.

As with Schrader’s American Gigolo, back in the 80s, we are kept on the outside of an impeccably-groomed, empathetic man, close relationships distanced while he tries to free himself from a corrupt ‘American dream’ disintegrating around him and possibly going to swallow him up.

Short review: Ironically, there is no Tell from this buttoned-up ex-serviceman until he decides to risk all to stop a troubled young man become one of life's losers.

Best quote: "I never imagined myself suited to a life of incarceration, same toothbrush, same toilet, stale smoke, stale f***s…I found I liked reading, I’d never read before. And it was in prison I learned to count cards.


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