Card Counter, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2021)September 08, 2021
Writer/director Paul Schrader makes moody, low-budget movies about isolated people. While his highly regarded reputation as a screenwriter is deserved (he wrote, among other titles, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver), his directorial resume is checkered – he was at the helm for American Gigolo and Affliction, but also The Canyons. George C. Scott allegedly once said to Schrader: "You’re a great screenwriter but the world’s worst goddamned director." In the case of The Card Counter, Schrader is functioning as both writer and director but the main problems seem more associated with the former function than the latter.
The Card Counter feels like it’s about two-thirds of a good movie. Despite solid performances from lead actor Oscar Isaac (at his steely-eyed, slow-burn best) and the supporting cast (which includes Willem Dafoe, Tye Sheridan, and an underused Tiffany Haddish in a purely dramatic role), not all elements of the movie gel. Not only do there appear to be missing scenes (transitions are often abrupt and plot threads are left dangling) but two of the most important sequences (one on-screen, the other off-screen) strain credulity. Although The Card Counter is grounded in reality at the outset, it goes off the rails by the time it reaches its climax (not unlike one of Schrader’s earliest films, Hardcore, which starred the aforementioned Scott).
The purpose of The Card Counter is to deconstruct the beloved Hollywood trope of the redemption of the anti-hero. For this movie, Schrader wants to tap into the mindset of a badly damaged man convicted of war crimes and follow his quest for redemption. Rather than this happening serendipitously, he instead orchestrates it and when his plans are on the verge of falling apart, he forces the issue (that’s the first hard-to-swallow scene I mentioned above). Most of what follows either doesn’t make sense or is borderline-ridiculous. Although the decision not to film a duel (having it happen off-camera with only an audio track to indicate what’s happening) is most likely a budgetary issue, the result proves to be fundamentally unsatisfying.
Just like Raging Bull was about a boxer without being a boxing movie, so The Card Counter is about a gambler without being a gambling movie. Schrader has no interest whatsoever in going the sports-movie route of developing tension by exploring each match in loving detail. To the extent that he’s interested in the games, it’s only about how the wins and losses impact the characters. In the voiceover, he gives us a primer about how to card count but that’s more in the nature of colorful background than a major plot point.
The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, has the loaded name of William Tell. His background, which is gradually revealed through flashbacks, is murky and gut-churning, and has a connection with the character played by Willem Dafoe. He travels the country going from casino to casino, wining small amounts before moving on. His philosophy: he’s a card counter and the casinos know it, but they don’t care unless he wins big. So if he keeps his takings small, he can gradually build a fortune. He connects with a woman named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) and develops a mentor/pupil relationship with a young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), whose father might have met William when they both served in Abu Ghraib. Cirk is at loose ends – his father killed himself, he’s estranged from his mother, and he’s adrift. William decides that in Cirk might be found the elusive path to redemption – something he sorely needs (as we gradually become aware).
Back in 2013, when Schrader released The Canyons, he participated in a number of interviews in which he indicated that the thought the future of movies was at-home rather than in-theater (punctuated by the opening scenes of that film, which showed still images of dilapidated multiplexes). There’s an irony that eight years later, when an increasing number of small-to-mid-sized movies are opening either via VOD or on a streaming service, Focus Features has elected to give The Card Counter a theater-only run. There’s nothing about the movie that streams “must see,” which makes this a curious choice for that “old fashioned” (and arguably out-of-date) distribution pattern.
If every gambler has a “tell,” the same can be said of every director. Schrader’s are evident in The Card Counter: the heavy, relentless atmosphere; the obtuse main character; the sense of impending doom. As a mood piece, the film works well. As a chance for Isaac to re-familiarize viewers with his serious side after spending three films in a galaxy far, far away, it’s effective. But as a character study, it’s flawed and as a narrative, it’s erratic. There are too few high cards in the movie’s deck for it to be considered a winning hand.
Card Counter, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2021)
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Willem Dafoe, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish
Screenplay: Paul Schrader
Cinematography: Alexander Dynan
Music: Robert Levon Been, Giancarlo Vulcano
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features