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Writer/director Paul Schrader is known as an auteur who knows how to deliver an incendiary message. From his screenplay for Taxi Driver straight through to his last directorial effort, First Reformed, the man is not shy about translating what’s on his mind into a fully formed motion picture. However, that sort of filmmaking doesn’t always land due to the personal nature of the thought process that delivers films like The Card Counter into living, breathing life. And not even a riveting performance from Oscar Isaac can stop this house of cards from burning straight to the ground.
The Card Counter has the audience following William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a former military interrogator who is coming off of an eight year sentence in prison, serving time for horrific acts he took part in at Abu Ghraib. William is good with cards, especially poker, and he’s ready to go professional thanks to the encouragement of manager/friend La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). However, Paul Schrader’s protagonist could see it all thrown away as a third player enters the game.
Through Tye Sheridan’s Cirk, a young man whose father was among those who served under William Tell’s commanding officer (Willem Dafoe), The Card Counter seeks to tell a story of revenge. More specifically, Cirk’s attempt at seeking vengeance for his dad, and how it weighs on William’s own reckonings with the past. On paper, there’s potential for these two stories to cross in a pleasing manner. But in execution, The Card Counter falls absolutely flat.
Paul Schrader feels like he has something to say in The Card Counter, but good luck trying to figure out that message.
The most frustrating part about The Card Counter is that when it comes to a satisfying narrative, the pieces are all there. Through Oscar Isaac’s commanding performance, Willam Tell is an intriguing figure to watch, painted in the noirish sort of morality that Paul Schrader loves to play around with. William’s rising star in the world of poker and his friendship with Cirk start off as intriguing threads that feel primed to go somewhere powerful.
And yet, The Card Counter absolutely fails to do just that. With Schrader building both of those stories to what feels like a breaking point, only to leave them high and dry, the tension that takes a while to get going collapses in a violent instant. What’s worse, as these stories fail to tie these happenings together cohesively, it wastes the time of the audience, and Oscar Isaac’s talented co-stars.
The Card Counter wastes the talents of Tye Sheridan and Tiffany Haddish, never giving them a chance to shine.
The Card Counter has its scattered moments of inspiration, most of which show off Oscar Isaac’s abilities as an actor. Considering he’s the big draw on the film, that’s to be expected, and the moments where Isaac's William Tell really gets to wrestle with his skills are some of the rare moments of electricity this movie indulges in. But with Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan acting as the supporting characters to Isaac’s supposed journey of redemption and discovery, the potential for these three talents to bounce off of each other is too good to ignore. But that’s exactly what The Card Counter does.
Outside of some scenes where Sheridan and Haddish get to engage in some lighthearted comedic patter, The Card Counter doesn’t use either of their skill sets to the fullest. In practice, Curt and La Linda would be perfect foils that could bring William back to humanity, and in the case of Tiffany Haddish's character, there's a firm groundwork laid for such happenings. But that’s admittedly one version of what could be done with their characters, which is still more than what we get when watching The Card Counter seemingly build a crushing final hand, only to walk away from the table at the worst possible moment.
Neither a compelling gambling drama, nor an intriguing examination of war crimes, The Card Counter is almost a total bust.
For as exacting as the film seems to be in its visuals, The Card Counter is too much of a mystery for its audience to put together. Dabbling in everything from metaphors to flat out torture politics, none of what’s presented on screen ever comes together. If there was a clearly intended parable hidden somewhere in Paul Schrader’s work, it’s been lost in the shuffle. Despite enlisting a trio of actors that we’ve seen deliver time and again, The Card Counter leaves its leads to their own devices.
Only Oscar Isaac stands out, on the sheer will of the fact that the story just happens to be built around his character, leaving Tye Sheridan and Tiffany Haddish to fend for themselves. By time the film ends on a lingering image that begs for the audience to identify it as some sort of emotional exclamation point, it feels more like a gigantic question mark is awkwardly filling the screen. Schrader devotees may see something that I’m missing here, so your mileage may vary with his latest work.