The Card Counter Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

Cold Calculation / The Card Counter

Genre crime drama
Directed by Paul Schroeder
Cast: Oscar Isaac (William Tell), Ty Sheridan (Sirk), Tiffany Haddish (La Linda), Willem Dafoe (Major John Gordo), Catherine Baker (Sarah), Joel Michaeli (Ronnie) and others.
Студии Focus Features, LB Entertainment, Astrakan Film AB
Release year 2021
Site IMDb

For Oscar Isaac, the Venice International Film Festival 2021 was a triumph – there, together with Denis Villeneuve, he presented Dune and, in the company of Jessica Chastain, presented the series Scenes from a Marriage (Scenes from a Marriage). Within the framework of the festival, another film with the participation of the actor, which is now being released in Ukrainian distribution, was shown – this is “Cold Calculation” (The Card Counter).

Judging from several teasers and a trailer, Cold Calculation may seem like a sluggish adventurous thriller in which the characters pull off a poker scam. In fact, everything is not so, the film is much more interesting and serious than it is presented in the announcements.

The drama was directed by Paul Schroeder, who wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s cult films Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Schroeder also directed personal projects, and his film First Reformed was nominated for an Oscar.

In the drama The Card Counter, gambler William Tell (Oscar Isaac) appears – he explains the principle of card counting, which helps to win at the casino. The hero does not chase big wins, being content with modest amounts, so as not to attract too much attention to himself. He spends the night in roadside hotels where no one knows about his oddities – William wraps all the furniture in white sheets, turning the room into a featureless space. In such an environment, he writes in a diary, trying to cope with the traumas he experienced. He has something to hide, and old sins will again remind of themselves when a young man (Ty Sheridan) appears before the hero, thirsting for revenge.


The main action of the film takes place today, but in terms of mood it resembles the old works of Scorsese (by the way, the director himself acted as an executive producer of Cold Calculation). This is a story of loneliness, suppression of anger and a frightening calm, behind which lie years of self-discipline. At the same time, Paul Schroeder pays great attention to card games, explaining the nuances of bets. Sometimes the director delves into this topic so deeply that it begins to seem as if the drama is completely dedicated to the gambling world of the casino.

However, full immersion in the game is a way to get away from the past, to cut off all unwanted memories that haunt the hero. However, they still break out in a frightening and distorted nightmare (there is a memorable fish-eye flashback in the film).

For a better understanding of what will appear on the screen, it is worth reading a short background on the Abu Ghraib prison, where the US military imprisoned Iraqis. There, torture and sexual violence were used against the prisoners, fragments of bullying were documented by the soldiers in the photo, which became known in 2004 thanks to an investigation by journalists. Several military personnel featured in the pictures received prison terms, while the highest ranks escaped punishment.


Due to the double plot load, it may seem that The Card Counter grabs several topics at once, losing the main motive. In fact, this is the specificity of Paul Schroeder’s script – his new movie differs from the structure of most modern films. The tape is not perfect, but very attractive, largely due to the shooting inherent in the cinema of bygone years (in theaters, the film will not adapt to wide format, the space on the sides of the screen will remain free).

The soundtrack, which was written by Robert Levon Bean (a member of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), helps the tape not fall apart into several different parts. Music constantly returns our attention to the casino, where the hero, well played by Oscar Isaac, remains an enigmatic player for those around him. Bean’s compositions are atmospheric and attractive – thanks to them, the film turns into a hypnotically beautiful action closer to the denouement, although it carries gloomy notes in its meaning (by the way, the songs from the film were released as a separate album, which can already be listened to on music streaming services).

Also in the film, it is worth waiting for the appearance of Willem Dafoe – he played a small, but at the same time prominent secondary role. For the actor, this is the eighth tape on which he is working with director Paul Schroeder.

Pluses: an ambiguous character performed by Oscar Isaac; the atmosphere of the film in the spirit of Scorsese’s old works; hypnotic soundtrack; nuances of card games Cons: not everyone will like the specific double plot load Conclusion:

From the teasers and trailer, The Card Counter may seem like a sluggish adventurous thriller. However, this film is completely different – serious, dramatic and unlike most modern dramas.

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