William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is an ex-military who served time for something in the Fort Leavenworth prison. During his time in prison, William learned to count cards well and not show any emotions, which helps him win at blackjack and poker. Tell tries not to draw attention to himself, he has neither relatives, nor friends, nor his own home. He moves from city to city, from motel to motel, and with each motel room he performs a certain ritual, wrapping furniture and chairs in white sheets and removing pictures from the walls in order to depersonalize the room as much as possible.
Tell has its own way of playing. He mostly plays small, trying to raise the stakes only when there is a good chance of winning, and when he wins, he stops in time so that the security service does not become interested in his identity.
One day, William meets a certain La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), an old acquaintance from the world of gambling, in a casino. La Linda says she represents an investor group that funds advanced players for a handsome percentage of their winnings. And she invites William to participate in the World Series of Poker – a prestigious series of poker tournaments.
Tell initially refuses because it goes against his principles. Shortly thereafter, however, William finds himself, somewhat by chance, at a security seminar in Atlantic City: the seminar is taught by Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), whom Tell knows well. At the seminar, a young guy named Kirk (Ty Sheridan) hands William his business card and asks him to contact him.
After talking to Kirk, Tell tells La Linda that he is accepting her offer to play in the World Series of Poker.
A prime example of a film that audiences don’t like and critics really like. On IMDB, the rating is only 6.3, on Rotten Tomatoes the critics rating is 86%, which is quite good, but the viewer rating is only 42%, that is, two times lower, which is extremely rare!
So what is wrong with this film (or, conversely, so) – let’s figure it out.
The original name of the painting is The Card Counter, that is, “counting cards”. Card counting is a technique that allows not only to win blackjack all the time, but, let’s say, to slightly increase the probability of winning. This technique was described in the film “Twenty-One” (rather weak, in my opinion, the film), which was dedicated to a group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, furnishing the casino for very solid sums.
“Counting Cards”, the image of Oscar Isaac against the background of the king of diamonds on the poster (there are, however, symbols on the card with blood stains, but few people paid attention to this) – the audience is waiting for an action-packed picture about a cool card player. At the same time, already in the first third of the film, viewers get the memories of the protagonist about how John Gordo taught him the art of “interrogation with passion”, that is, torture, and how the hero of the film participated in all this.
However, flashbacks from the Abu Ghraib prison are shown in a highly distorted form (these scenes were filmed with an ultra-wide-angle fisheye lens) and for a very short time, but nevertheless, this is clearly not what many viewers expected to see in the picture. And this film tells quite a bit about the casino, blackjack and a tense poker game, but it tells a lot about its main character, who bears the pseudonym William Tell (almost William Tell, and the associations are clear), and the story with Kirk.
Here it is immediately necessary to recall that although as a director Paul Schroeder has shot more than two dozen films, including “Conveyor” (his directorial debut, after which Schroeder was noticed), “American Gigolo”, “Daylight” and the recent “Shepherd’s Diary”, but after all, he is better known as a screenwriter, according to the scripts of which Martin Scorsese directed “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”.
And in “Cold Calculation” there are certain intersections with “Taxi Driver” in 1976. The protagonist of “Taxi Driver” Travis Bickle used to serve in the Marine Corps and fought in Vietnam. He is tormented by insomnia, terrible scenes from military life always appear before his eyes, and Travis aimlessly circles in a taxi through the streets of the night city at night. He meets Iris, a prostitute girl, and decides to save her, return her to normal life.
The protagonist of “Cold Calculation” William Tell was a military man who served in Iraq in the Abu Ghraib prison, where he conducted “interrogations with passion.” Photographs depicting torture made it into the press, the soldiers in the photo, including Tell, were sent to military prison for ten years, and those who forced them to do it, such as Major John Gordo, managed to avoid punishment – thanks to quirks of American law: John Gordo was a private contractor and could not be prosecuted for crimes committed outside the United States. And the soldiers who carried out the orders of Gordo could be persecuted, dismissed from the army in disgrace, tried and imprisoned.
Tell met Kirk, the son of a soldier whose father had also served under Gordo. Kirk’s father has committed suicide, and Kirk is obsessed with making Gordo answer for what he did. At the same time, Tell does not want to help Kirk deal with Gordo, but he wants to save him: help the guy repay the accumulated debts, part with the idea of taking revenge on the major, find his mother, who ran away from the guy who beat her father, and, thus, return to normal life.
Bickle from “Taxi Driver” was obsessed with the idea of ”cleansing” the city – Tell is not going to do anything like that. He himself is a criminal, he does not justify himself in any way, and he lives simply by inertia, subordinating his life to the same rituals. And only the appearance of Kirk makes Tell get out of this “cocoon” of his, because William has a definite goal in life – to help the guy. At the same time, this “coming out of the cocoon” also leads to the fact that Tell gradually approaches La Linda, whom he clearly likes.
It is set up very well. It seems that almost the entire film – similar as two drops of water interiors of East Coast casinos and faceless motel rooms (Tell never stays in comfortable casino hotels), William’s monotonous rituals, slightly meditative monotonous music, and even poker battles are shown very restrained, without any something of suspense, but at the same time, an appropriate mood is created and you really get into the picture, especially when you understand what they want to say to you at all.
Oscar Isaac is an excellent actor (he is one of my favorite contemporary American actors), able to play very different roles. Dangerous millionaire-manipulator Nathan from the movie “Ex Machina”, “man is a piece of shit” Llewyn Davis from “Inside Llewyn Davis”, powerful and strong-willed Abel Morales from “The Most Violent Year”, emotional, vulnerable and reflective Jonathan from “Scenes from the Marriage life.” Completely different types.
Here he also has a wonderful role! Few actors can portray a character carrying the nightmares and crimes of his previous life without resorting to any discernible emotion. William is completely emotionless (the same poker face, yes), but a lot is hidden behind his attentive, impassive and unblinking eyes. And Oscar showed it absolutely amazing!
In a couple of reviews, the authors made certain claims to the director that, they say, the main character does not want to empathize. And who ever said that the main character needs to empathize? William himself knows that he is a criminal. He does not empathize with himself. So why should we empathize with him? We are simply being shown history as it is. The story, in my opinion, is interesting, albeit dramatic. A story that makes you think about something. Including this, generally speaking, is the essence of cinema as such – to make you think about something.
I remember the actress Tiffany Haddish from the film “Here and Now”, where at first it seemed that her heroine was such a certain cliché, but Emma Page quickly got rid of the clichés, and the role turned out to be interesting, vital and touching.
In this film, she also liked: La Linda does not have much screen time, but the role is memorable, and La Linda’s romantic relationship with William looked quite authentic and realistic.
Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One’s Wade Watts) played this Kirk really well, but it wasn’t a very winning role, to be honest: a kid who is confused in life, about to do something that is clearly too tough for him. But Sheridan played this role quite well, and in the scene with Tell, who decided to scare him, he looked very authentic. And at the same time, you believe that Tell Kirk was never able to intimidate.
About Willem Dafoe, who usually plays all his roles perfectly, there is little to say here: he only has three small episodes here. But it’s good too, yes.
What’s in general? A good movie – well acted and well directed. Yes, the title and the poster allude to a slightly different movie than the audience gets, but I just liked that this is not an ordinary story about a card player, but a psychological thriller about war trauma, guilt and an attempt at redemption. Perhaps the creators of the picture somehow needed to make it clear to the audience what exactly awaits them, then there would not have been a certain disappointment.
Because the picture is interesting and quite worthy of viewing, in my opinion. You just need to understand what to expect from her.
PS Many viewers (mostly English-speaking, few people in Russia saw the picture) express certain complaints about the plot and even declare that the director, they say, completely merged the ending and all that. Well, let’s discuss under the spoiler.
In my opinion, everything in William’s behavior here is quite logical. Critics of the plot lean on the fact that, they say, why on earth a person who coldly and prudently calculated everything and everything, suddenly undertook not only to help the kid, but also decided to finish the deal with Gordo, which he did not originally plan to do, and also strangely foolishly acted with the major, entering into a duel with him, instead of just shooting him.
So, the film shows well that William did not live a full life, but simply existed, experiencing every night what he had done. That’s why he drives around these endless casinos, winning small, that’s why he doesn’t live in comfortable hotels, that’s why he turns every motel room into a kind of prison room with white walls. He is actually a dead man, and the dead do not need rich clothes, he needs a shroud.
Why was he helping Kirk? Yes, because here he had a chance for at least some meager, but redemption. Nobody can help Kirk but him, but William can help him. And he becomes attached to the kid, that’s why he carries him with him. And he played out this terrible scene with the inclusion of the “prison interrogator” precisely so that Kirk would get scared, give up the idea of taking revenge on Gordo and go to his mother. But Kirk, to his misfortune, was not afraid.
Why did William go to deal with Gordo? Just to complete that very attempt at redemption. He tried to help Kirk, he couldn’t help Kirk, Gordo killed the guy – now William will kill Gordo himself.
Why didn’t he just shoot Gordo, but chose a duel? First, William has nothing to lose, he’s still dead. Secondly, it is Gordo who wants to prove that he, William, is not a cold-blooded killer. Oddly enough, even in this situation, he wants to get some respect from Gordo, who was once his boss.
And the return of William to prison does not frighten him at all, he goes for it himself. He has already spent ten years in this prison, he knows this prison, he belongs in prison, and he knows it too.
By the way, the final scene of William’s visit to La Linda in prison is a kind of explicit quote from Michelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam”.
The Card Counter
Director: Paul Schroeder Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe, Alexander Babara, Bobbi C King, Catherine Baker, Brian Truong, Dylan Flashner, Adrienne Lau
Psychological thriller, USA-UK-China-Sweden, 2021, 111 min.