The Card Counter is the latest collaboration between veteran producer/director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader.
Schrader specializes in dark, gritty stories of men searching for redemption in films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Taking out the Dead and now The Card Counter - available on Amazon Prime.
It seems that films like The Card Counter aren’t being put in cinemas these days – though it was released in the States last year, where it performed poorly.
But it’s rather better than that bald statement suggests - particularly for people nostalgic for those Seventies classics that Schrader, who directs here, cut his teeth on.
The title character, who goes by William Tell, is played by Oscar Isaac. Isaac is one of those actors whose talent, you’d think, would guarantee stardom. Except he doesn’t seem particularly interested in that.
Bill Tell is a professional card-player, a player with an edge. He learned to count cards in the joint.
Card-counting is illegal in casinos, though the owners will tolerate the practice so long as the player doesn’t win too big. Staying under the radar is Bill’s specialty.
But then he’s head-hunted. Twice. First time by La Linda – a cool performance by Tiffany Haddish, better known as a comedian. She sees something in Bill that spells “money”.
And the second time, he’s spotted going to a sales pitch given by a shady military consultant called Gordo – Willem Dafoe at his most slippery.
Bill’s picked out by a kid, played by Tye Sheridan, as someone with a personal grudge against Gordo. One that he shares.
Sheridan is another of those actors – like Isaac, I suppose – whose face rings a bell, but you can’t quite place it. He was in Mud, and Ready Player One, as well as a guilty pleasure of mine called Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.
He’s also pretty good in this.
The kid wants revenge, and he can see Bill has history with Gordo, tied in with his time in jail.
But in a Schrader script, simple revenge is not enough. Bill Tell blames himself as much as anyone else for what happened all those years before.
Unusually, there’s an easy lovability about the three players. At times it feels more like an Elmore Leonard romp than Schrader’s usual intense melodrama. But only at times.
The Card Counter has more on its mind than just following a trio of grifters.
The Kid is wrestling with the sins of his father, La Linda’s chasing the American Dream, while Bill has been let down by everyone up to and including his Government.
It’s tough, it’s character driven, it’s very Seventies. You can see why it appealed to veteran producer Scorsese. You can also see why it was a hard sell in the age of comic-book right and wrong.
Twenty years ago it might have been a little classic, starring Nicholson or Pacino or James Caan. Today, it’s a well-made hark back to another place and another time. And made by an aging Old Master.