By Ben Lindner, Staff Writer
[Focus Features; 2021]
Writer and director Paul Schrader, best known for writing Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and the 2017 indie hit First Reformed, returns to the big screen with The Card Counter. In The Card Counter, former soldier William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is just getting out of prison. Haunted by his time in a cell, William spends all of his time playing blackjack, swindling the casinos out of money with the card counting skills he learned during his time in solitary. William prefers to be alone, but he ends up getting to know La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), the charming poker manager who wants to get William into bigger gambling rings and Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young former soldier who brings William’s past back to him. William has to face his past and see if he can adapt back into the world.
Read more: Movie Review: Dear Evan Hansen
If you’ve ever seen a movie from Paul Schrader before, you’ve basically seen this film. Like many of his movies, The Card Counter features a stoic protagonist who wrestles with forgiveness and tells its story through restrained, uncomplicated filming. This is not to say the movie is bad. In fact, the story is exciting as it slowly builds until a satisfying catharsis at the end, keeping the audience engaged. However, it becomes much less exciting when you realize the film’s lack of originality. Even outside of just Schrader’s filmography, The Card Counter does little to stand out against other revenge thrillers. Without coming from a new perspective, The Card Counter ultimately ends up feeling a bit hollow.
The biggest difficulty that the film has is in the relationship between its characters. Oscar Isaac plays William in a stoic and closed-off manner. While it makes sense for his character, it makes it tough to imagine him developing a relationship with others. The Card Counter ends up not doing enough to make his change of heart convincing. When he gets to know Cirk, William changes to really care about him. This happens far too quickly to be believable, making the end of their relationship feel less impactful as it could be.
Even more troublesome is the chemistry between Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish, of which there is none. Haddish seems generally miscast for this role; she seems caught between the fun she’s brought to previous movies and the seriousness that this one requires. She tries to toe the line as the one bit of levity of the film, yet she is unable to command that type of role in the film. This wouldn’t be too much of a deal-breaker, except for the fact that the third act of the film hinges on a romance between these characters. It feels awfully forced and does not land as the emotional climax of the film. A platonic relationship between these two characters is believable by the end, but when it takes the next step to romance, it comes out of nowhere.
The Card Counter is not without its highlights though. Oscar Isaac is excellent as always, truly selling a man held captive by his past. Willem Dafoe appears for just a few scenes as Isaac’s former commanding officer and steals every scene he is in. The film also has strong visuals that, while simple, are still often very effective and are well-suited for this type of story. Thestory is a real slow burn that is perhaps too slow, but the conclusion in the end makes it mostly worth it.
Overall, The Card Counter is both hit and miss. There are some strong elements, but weak ones that hold it back from its potential. Some fans of Schrader’s other works, or other slow, contemplative thrillers may get a lot out of this, but it doesn’t do enough to recommend for everyone.
Watch the trailer here: