THE CARD COUNTER*CUT TO THE CHASE*
NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Alex
In narration, William Tell (Oscar Isaac) explains how he never thought he’d be able to handle a life of confinement but was sentenced to a long prison sentence where he learned to appreciate the routine – and to count cards. He explains the math of it travels casino to casino, counting cards cashing out small but substantial winnings, preferring to bet small and win small to not draw attention to himself. In his motel rooms, he covers every piece of furniture with sheets and wraps them up with twine. While watching a poker tournament, he catches the eye of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who recognizes him from the gambling circuits. La Linda wants to know how he gets away with counting cards, and he explains when he keeps the amounts low no one cares.
La Linda manages a stable of gamblers and helps them get staked by deep pockets for big poker tournaments and making everyone involved lots of money. She is interested in working with him, but he tells her that he prefers to be under the radar and politely declines. In Atlantic City, he sees an advertisement for a lecture from Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) on interrogation techniques. William goes in and sits in on part of the seminar, but leaves partway through. He is stopped by another audience member, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who tells William he knows who he is and gives him a card with his contact information. That night, William has nightmares about his time working as a soldier at the Abu Ghraib prison, witnessing and participating in the torture and abuse of prisoners – this is what sent him to prison. He wakes up from the nightmares and contacts Cirk to set up a meeting.
William and Cirk meet for a drink, and Cirk reveals he knows William’s real name: William Tillich. Cirk explains that his father was also a soldier at Abu Ghraib and that he has researched everything he can about it. Cirk also knows that Major Gordo was the one who implemented and installed the torture methods at Abu Ghraib, but because he was a private contractor, he could not be prosecuted – unlike the soldiers like William and Cirk’s father. Only the people in the photos that got out went to jail. Cirk tells William how after his father went to prison he became an addict and physically abused him and his mother, leaving his mother to flee in the middle of the night, and then eventually to his father committing suicide. Cirk tells William the real people responsible for Abu Ghraib have never paid, and he thinks William might want to join in on his plan to capture, torture, and kill Gordo. William tells Cirk revenge is a bad idea.
William invites Cirk to join him on his gambling tour, telling him it gets lonely and he’d like company. Cirk agrees and the two begin to get to know each other a little on their drive to the next casino. William gives Cirk some money to do some gambling of his own and instructs him with tips on how to make money in a casino. He calls La Linda and tells her he’s had second thoughts and would be interested in making the big money by playing poker staked by one of her backers. La Linda meets up with them and tells her he only wants to make enough money to have a nest egg and then he’s out, one year only. Cirk continues to ask William for help with his plan to get revenge on Gordo by tranquilizing him and torturing him the way prisoners were tortured, but William describes in detail how horrific the prison was.
William plays in his first poker tournament and does well, making him and La Linda a good amount of money. She asks him what his plans are after, but he just goes back to his motel alone. That night, William has more memories of Abu Ghraib and when Gordo arrived. Gordo took a liking to William. The next day, on their way to their next casino, William drives Cirk by his former prison and says he’s made arrangements for a visit. He asks Cirk to come in with him but he refuses, despite William’s insistence.
Later, Cirk shows William that he was able to get Gordo’s address and look up pictures of it on Google earth. Cirk asks William if he likes La Linda and ends up asking him when the last time he got laid was, offending William, who asks him when the last time he saw his mother was. He tells Cirk he’ll get laid when Cirk goes and sees his mother. Cirk asks him what Abu Ghraib was like, and William explains the term tilt – how soldiers applied more and more force until they completely lost sight on the objective. He says any man can tilt.
At the next tournament, La Linda asks Cirk what the truth about William is, but he claims not to know. William once again does very well in the tournament. La Linda wants to know why he only wants to play for this short stretch, and William tells her that he’s just doing it long enough to make enough money so that Cirk can pay his debts and resume his education. La Linda takes William to a botanical garden where they take in the sights and eventually hold hands.
When he returns, he invites Cirk to his motel room – Cirk is shocked by the way everything is covered in sheets. William suddenly starts acting creepily and Cirk tries to leave but William shouts at him frighteningly. The next time he tries to get up, William hits him. He makes him an “offer” he gives him a duffel with enough money to pay off his debt, his mother’s debt, and set him up back in school. He tells him he can have it if he goes and sees his mother and makes things good – he has found his mother and has her address. He tells him he’s been playing the tournaments for him. Cirk agrees to the deal.
William goes to La Linda’s hotel room and tells her that he made a promise to Cirk before he left, and finally kisses her. They have sex, and the next morning William happily shows her video of Cirk face-timing with his mother, who is happy to hear from him. At the poker tournament, William is doing very well, until it is down to him, the reigning champion, and one other man. William checks his phone and sees a text from Cirk “wish you were here” and a photo… of Gordo’s house. Horrified, William leaves the game as La Linda looks on in shock.
In his room, William googles news stories and finds one. He plays the video where the reporter says that army veteran Major Gordo was attacked and shot at by an intruder, but that Gordo shot back and killed the intruder. William can barely react, deep in horror. Later, Gordo returns to his home to find William has him at gunpoint. Gordo recognizes him and says he feels bad he went to prison, and William tells him the boy he shot was also the son of a soldier who went to prison. He tells Gordo they are going in the next room to do a “reenactment” and only one will come out alive. They go until the next room and screams are heard until the next morning, when William emerges, bloody. He calls the police to report a murder.
Back in prison, William is told he has a visitor. He is led out to find La Linda, She smiles and reaches her hand out to the glass. He reaches back at her, and their hands hover there together.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a card counter who goes from casino counting cards to win, but small enough amounts to not be noticed. He was a former soldier in the Abu Ghraib prison who participated in the torture of inmates and was in the leaked photos - and was sentenced to prison for it. He meets a young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who is the son of a fellow soldier. Cirk's father came out of prison and began beating him and his mother, and his mother fled him, his father killed himself. He wants William to help him murder Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the person responsible for the torture but who got away with it.
William wants to dissuade Cirk from this path, so he begins shirking anonymity to play high-stakes poker games through manager La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), and the two quickly grow to fall for each other. William wins enough in poker to provide Cirk with the money to start a new life, but Cirk goes to murder Gordo anyway, but Gordo shoots and kills Cirk. Enraged, William goes to Cirk and the two torture each other to the death - only William walks out alive. He goes back to prison, but La Linda comes to visit him.