Directed By Paul Schrader
Starring – Oscar Issac, Tiffany Haddish, Willem Dafoe
The Plot – Follows William Tell (Isaac), a gambler and former serviceman who sets out to reform a young man seeking revenge on a mutual enemy from their past. Tell just wants to play cards. His spartan existence on the casino trail is shattered when he is approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a vulnerable and angry young man seeking help to execute his plan for revenge on a military colonel (Dafoe). Tell sees a chance at redemption through his relationship with Cirk. Gaining backing from mysterious gambling financier La Linda (Haddish), Tell takes Cirk with him on the road, going from casino to casino until the unlikely trio set their sights on winning the World Series of poker in Las Vegas. But keeping Cirk on the straight-and-narrow proves impossible, dragging Tell back into the darkness of his past.
Rated R for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, adult language and brief sexuality.
– Palpable humanity. Like most of Schrader’s critically acclaimed work that have cemented one of the most meaningful names behind the director’s chair, “The Card Counter” too is very much a character study, and one that sifts through a variety of complex philosophical themes that drives its narrative. The most evidential one is that of change, and if people do in fact fall prisoners to the previously dealt hands that we ourselves have chosen to play, and lose big. In William’s case, it’s stitching together a shady past as a military policeman and one in current day as a world class poker player, with the metaphors of the latter materializing as a result of the actions of the former. It elevates this beyond being just another poker film, as evidenced by Schrader’s dwindling interest in the game itself as the film persists, and instead constructs one of the more compelling and elaborate deconstructions of regret, remorse, and especially redemption ever put to film, which in turn cements it as a complimentary companion piece to Schrader’s 2017 effort; “First Reformed”.
– Alluring atmosphere. Speaking of that aforementioned Schrader effort, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that he was bringing along the same cinematographer, Alexander Dynan, who fleshed out the world of faith in that film as something so hopelessly bleak and suffocating. It’s similar circumstances here, just in a way that plays into the panic and unnerve of typical poker players, but in a persistence in the real world outside of the game. This is attained with a couple of different measures. The first is the hypnotically sleek sedation of the color pallet, endearing us to the lights of the casino to offer a manipulative contrast to the darkness of the table in the forefront of each shot. In addition to this, Schrader’s movements behind the lens pertain to great experimentation, as we’re treated to many prolonged navigating sequences, shifting gravity, and a fish eye lens during flashbacks that colorfully illustrate this nightmare that is constantly on replay in William’s head. Each give “The Card Counter” its own distinct identity despite maintaining the familiarity that has become a staple of Schrader cinema, allowing the director to evolve with evolving technology, but maintaining the artistic drive that made him a force to be reckoned with in “Taxi Driver”.
– Ambiguous characterization. How rare is it in a film where the less we know about its characters actually plays into the intrigue and deceit of its ensuing game? That’s the case here with the many colorful personalities that we come into contact with, which despite the abundance of time paid to each of them, never feel fleshed out in a manner we can wholeheartedly interpret and trust. Because of such, there were scenes where character outlines were redefined, and stakes shifted in the blink of an eye, creating a one of a kind poker game for the climactic third act, in which money simply isn’t enough to play. This is especially the case for William, who like other Schrader protagonists, isn’t reliable or admirable in ways that feed into contemporary heroes of any story, and instead sift through the various detections of humanity that all but seem to point to the ages old declaration; “To err is human”.
– Audible intoxication. I have found my favorite musical score of 2021, and to my surprise it comes from a first time composer, named Robert Levon Been. Aside from the scintillating magnetism assembled from the various underlining ominousness carefully inserted throughout the narrative, it’s Been’s instrumental spontaneity that constantly contorts and shifts itself through many character discoveries. In this respect, it makes the assembled tracks in the film feel like they could hold equally compelling resonance if they were placed into a horror movie of any subgenre, prescribing to a deeper fog of teleportation made all the more alarming for the way it’s channeled at the helm of the vulnerability and unpredictability of the poker table. The best moments are the subtle synth instilled during the introductory period of the opening act, but everything that follows is equally invigorating and haunting, making this a buzzworthy debut from Robert that will force me to keep an eye on the next hand he plays.
– Credible thoughts. Playing into this being a character study, the incorporation of overhead narration is one that I thought played brilliantly into Tell’s enveloping, especially in the ways it’s used to decipher what we’re being shown in the foreground of the storytelling. Almost immediately, we come to understand that William in physical form isn’t exactly a reliable narrator of sorts, so the advantage of hearing his thoughts help to distinguish the direction and motivations of his character, all the while bridging together his two lives, past and present, seamlessly. The dialogue itself is slightly heavy-handed and obvious at times, but not exactly problematic, considering this is within Will’s head, instead of lines of interaction between characters. It makes for an advantageous example of exposition that we otherwise wouldn’t feel privy to, serving as one of the lone examples of narration, where it actually serves a point, and not just an echoing of matters already mentioned in the context of the dialogue.
– Oscar-worthy. Isaac gives what I feel is the first award-worthy performance of 2021, and one that prescribes an abundance of unforeseen depth to the actor that I feel is his single best work to date. Part of the charm for me is the cadence of his deliveries, feeling dark and transformative without the necessity of accents at his disposal. He’s very much the same familiar Oscar, but with a burning intensity that lights the fuse for a barrage of eye-opening monologues conveying the anger and disappointment within himself that seems to grow with time. Aside from this, it’s the evolution in personality that shifts with each ensuing relationship that his character endures that is most evident, allowing Isaac the versatility in his channeling that occasionally makes this character feel like three different people in one bodily enveloping. It will hopefully be enough to earn him his first Academy Award nomination, and above all else cement Isaac as one of the very best going today, with no limitations in the possibility of his abilities.
– Strange casting. The contrast to having a remarkable performance from Isaac at the forefront is it easier points to the discontent I had with the surrounding pieces, which are made all the more underwhelming with such a sharp lead acting off of them. Tiffany Haddish is someone I feel is a very funny actress, but hasn’t exactly proven her dramatic chops yet. That continues with “The Card Counter”, as Haddish does exude a sultry sizzle that enhance her character, but the lack of chemistry with Isaac, as well as some laughably bad line reads keep her grounded as a comic actor, and one whose schtick is wearing thin in five years as a mainstream face. As bad as Haddish is, though, Sheridan is ten times worse, feeling like a mop that sucks up as much charisma and urgency in the context of each scene or sequence that he accommodates. Aside from there being this dwindling interest in the film each time his character invades the screen, it’s Tye’s one-note moody personality that is most compromising to his indulgence, serving as a pivotal lead-in to the unraveling conflict, but one whose limitations kept it from attaining the urgency needed to enhance its appeal. Finally, even Dafoe is subjected to disappointment, as he’s only in two scenes in the entirety of the film, leaving him motionless in making a difference to anything other than Isaac feeling effective to the film.
– Rushed ending. It’s strange that so much of the movie’s 104 minute run time is spent patiently dragging its feel to allow all of the arc’s and subplots the time to materialize naturally in the element of the engagement. I don’t say that as an insult, but rather a compliment when compared to a climax for the movie (Or lack there of) that blends twenty minutes of developments into a ten minute delivery that is neither satisfying nor remotely inspirational for the audience looking to combat the preconceived notions of the moral narrative constantly at play throughout. It starts with limiting what we see in the entanglement of a physical confrontation, then hurries along as many character directions in a way that raises more questions than answers. It wraps with a final shot that is intentioned to be meaningful, but instead comes across as clumsily pretentious, inevitibly sending audiences home with a growing groan during the moment when its lasting impact can be felt the loudest.
– Contradictory title. In 2015, “The Big Short” held my hand and talked me through the stock market in exciting and educational ways that made me an expert on the subject. The same can’t be said for “The Card Counter”, which not only doesn’t teach us anything about the illegal advantage of counting cards, but it also rarely features the game pertaining to such. With the exception of the opening ten minutes, there is no blackjack throughout the entirety of this movie, instead focusing on the World Series of Poker and Texas Hold-Em for the benefit of big pots with no limitations. Now obviously, the title can be meant as a metaphorical one for life, especially considering William mentions early on that poker and life are similar because each hand in the past influences what happens in the future. However, I feel like overlooking what makes the character special is a fault in itself, and one that could’ve enhanced the connective tissue that the material had to its dwindling audience.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-