The Card Counter

The Card Counter ★★★★½

The first and only time I have ever even been in a casino was in 2019 (I had 20.00 and lost it all in one slot go). Despite that, the surroundings of The Card Counter felt intensely familiar thanks to a childhood spent following my mom around to conformation dog shows. Unless it's a summer show with nice weather, they're all in these huge dim-lit exhibition halls located in the third- or fourth-smallest town of the surrounding area. You see the same faces every weekend, people have bizarre claims to both fame and infamy, and entire days pass just waiting for the mere minutes that matter.

More importantly, dog shows attract people looking for an ounce of power and the ability to use it. I probably don't need to tell you that if you get heavily into showing dogs, there's a pretty good chance you were deeply uncool in high school. But instead of becoming an adult, developing an interest in walking a dog back and forth in front of a judge, and finding healthy strategies to deal with a multitude of inherited insecurities, most people just seize their opportunity to become the Queen Bee of the Conformation Ring. Constant snipes, sabotage (the careful deployment of a bitch in heat is not to be underestimated in a converted ice rink full of Dogs With Balls), endless speculation about which professional handlers (yes, this occupation exists) are sleeping with whom--it's all par for the course. Anyway, yes, Best in Show is accurate, but what I really mean to say is it's hard to re-write the hierarchies you got handed, even when the stakes are stupid.

Obviously, poker games have higher stakes, but The Card Counter dials all this down to focus on the likewise mundane parts of the gambling life (cold dinners, plastic folding chairs, never seeing the light of day for a solid 24 hours), and in so doing throws that common denominator into relief: Everyone wants power all the time. The idiot bro whose signature is a stars-and-stripes wife-beater; the disenfranchised Cirk; the desperate William Tell. As Tell's violent background gets fleshed out, this tenet turns from prosaic to sickening, but whether seen from the bottom-up at the casino or the top-down in Abu Ghraib, the dictum is systemic and inescapable. Everyone wants power all the time.

The Card Counter would be a good movie for that observation, but I loved it for the soft spaces it manages to whittle out between it, too. Or maybe that's not the right spatial metaphor; it's more like layering a blanket over a bedrock. Oscar Isaac is fucking fantastic (side note: Never Been Hotter), at once terrifying and tender in his search for clemency for himself and for Cirk, all while that exact quest inexorably pulls him toward the awful fate you always knew was in store for him. When Tell painstakingly puts white sheets over every object in his motel rooms, this too is at once a threat--easy clean up of blood?--and a plea for peace, quiet, under-stimulation.

Throughout, there's never quite a tension, per se, between these two spheres of power-terror and vulnerability-mercy. After all, the house always wins; power stays in place. Nonetheless, The Card Counter acknowledges that there's something worth fighting for, too, and maybe we should all still roll with our fingers crossed.

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