At its most basic form via the director’s statement, The Card Counter (2021) doesn’t appear to be anything special. Writer and director Paul Schrader summarized the story with, “William Tell is a man alone in his motel room. He plays poker. It passes the time. He bears a weight. Then something happens.”
The film appears similar to other narratives that incorporate some form of casino gaming. In most cases, poker or another popular game isn’t the focus of the film but instead adds to the tension as a hero undertakes a high-stakes journey (think: blackjack in Rain Man).
Despite the fact that casino games pair well with drama and action films, it’s not always easy to transform projects into blockbuster hits. Historically, Bond films have performed well—but their ties to gaming are thematic rather than driving the plot (with the exception of a few Casino Royale scenes).
And though films like Rain Man were acclaimed upon release, and 21 (2008) helped renew interest in card counting, there haven’t been any notable movies that cover the topic since Molly’s Game in 2017. It seems this will change once The Card Counter is released to the general public.
With Martin Scorsese listed as one of the film’s executive producers, there’s already ample interest in the film. However, critics have kept their eye on writer and director Schrader, who’s contributed to some of the greatest films of his generation.
Schrader & Scorsese Double-Punch
On Schrader’s list of accolades, his work with Scorsese shines brightest. He helped co-write screenplays for hits like Taxi Driver (1976), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Raging Bull (1980). His contributions were enough to launch his own directorial career, which includes titles like First Reformed (2017) and American Gigolo (1980).
Clearly, Scorsese and Schrader know how to put together a top project. With Scorsese firmly in the role of executive producer, the film hints that his involvement was likely related to tone and theme.
As revealed in the director’s statement, the film draws on the internal and interpersonal drama of the highest stakes. In the film, poker is only the lens through which the main character William Tell will be forced to reckon with his past. With supporting cast members like Tiffany Haddish, Oscar Isaac, and Willem Dafoe, this revenge thriller falls squarely in Schrader’s wheelhouse—which it should, as he penned the script himself.
‘Universal Acclaim’ on the Horizon
Schrader has a clear winning formula on his hands: his own screenwriting and directing abilities, Scorsese’s unfailing advice and guidance, and a star-studded cast. Still, great talents have failed to build out convincing and memorable stories with the same resources.
So far, Schrader has held up to the hype of what Indiewire called, “One of the most anticipated films of the year.” In July, shortly after the film debuted at the Venice Film Festival, Focus Features picked up the project, hinting that all was well in the critic’s circle.
At the moment, The Card Counter remains in ‘universal acclaim’ territory for its high performance on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. On Metacritic, the ‘universal acclaim’ moniker has already been added to the film’s profile, which has a total score of 83/100 based on 18 critic reviews (all positive).
Rotten Tomatoes is even sunnier, with a total approval rating of 97% based on 34 critic reviews. As is common on Rotten Tomatoes, 14 of those critics are industry experts, writing for publications like Variety, the Guardian, New York Magazine, and TIME.
Stephanie Zacharek of TIME wrote that the film was, “…intense and vital and hugely satisfying…” whereas Alison Willmore of New York Magazine wrote that the film was, “…delicious…” and David Jenkins of Little White Lies wrote of Schrader’s film that, “It’s a supremely compelling tale…”
The upcoming Zurich Film Festival will honor Schrader for his contributions to the film industry, including his work writing with Scorsese, as well as his own independent directorial projects. The Card Counter will show at the festival, where Schrader will also be invited to share a masterclass.