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The card counter

★★★

The card counter is a redemption and revenge thriller, with casino tables as a narrow backdrop for something darker. A player named William Tell counts cards while trying to rule out his sharp past. When he finds friendship with a young man on a dark mission, and when love appears in an unlikely place, he thinks anew about his own death quest.

William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a routine-loving single with some weird habits. He is in prison for committing war crimes in Abu Ghraib; but with nothing to live for, he makes the most of his time by figuring out how to play cards. Even after his release, he confines himself to card houses where he wins just enough to earn an income, without raising any suspicions. His motel rooms turn into a literal whitewash for his tortured past as he covers everything in the room with white sheets.

Gordo (Willem Dafoe) is a military contractor who becomes a presenter who talks about investigative techniques and how he can train police to use them. Sot wandered into the conversation to see the man he had trained to torture in Abu Ghraib. He ends up with the circus with a C (Tye Sheridan), a young man whose father served Tell.

The circus wants to capture, torture and kill Gordo because he has committed war crimes for which he was never punished. So, he conveys that plot to Tell. But Tell knows that the plan is doomed and that even if he succeeds, the circus will find no luck. Instead, Tell takes the circus under the wing and teaches him about maps. He finds a poker tour bankroll rep named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) to win a bunch of money and raise money for Cirk to get him out of debt so he can focus on something other than revenge.

But Tell is reluctant to let La Linda down and finds that he now has something to focus on other than the guilt of his own past. Is there enough money to quench the circus’ thirst for revenge? And will Tell find a reason to live that reflects his dark past?

Written and directed by Paul Schrader (First Reformed, Affliction), a true master hand is seen to enjoy every scene in The Card Counter. Suddenly a story about people whose lives are very professionally shaped by random chance to leave them, at the same time they take the matter into their own hands. Strong acting and sharp dialogue with voice-over narrative fit the methodical pace and deep dark nature of the script.

Slow enough to turn off those seeking immediate congratulations, The Card Counter methodically builds into a gripping cookbook. Great performances by broken people elevate a strong script and a work of art that not everyone likes. Dealing with a heavy hand of debt, this casino torture mixture slowly draws its cards down, delivering a full house.

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