Director Paul Schrader is known for his bleak, intense psychological character studies (most notably penning Taxi Driver & Raging Bull, and his recent directorial effort First Reformed), usually presented in a divisive and discomforting manner. The Card Counter continues this trend. Led by an icy and magnetic Oscar Isaac performance and including a mixture of distinct stylistic choices from Schrader. The Card Counter unfortunately is held back by a tonally clashing disconnected narrative, a repetitive structure and a lack of substance outside of the central character.
Written by Jack Ransom
The Card Counter follows William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a gambler and former serviceman who, after being released from prison, sets out to reform a young man (Tye Sheridan), who is seeking revenge on a mutual enemy from their past.
The film is undeniably a slow burner that, thematically, borrows heavily from Schrader’s earlier works. This could almost be classed as a spiritual follow up to Taxi Driver in a lot of ways. The PTSD stricken protagonist, his narration and context help driving the story and him wanting to help a young person who has lost their way. It’s just a shame it’s not as effectively done here. Attempting to balance the intricacies of card playing, a road trip structure and gruelling interrogation flashbacks simply doesn’t all quite gel together. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting. Schrader’s dialogue certainly has its moments and there is a simultaneously melancholic yet brooding atmosphere throughout that the film conjures up nicely.
Stylistically the film has an interesting palette. There is heavy usage of a shallow depth of field, to really emphasise the characters and make them more prominent in the shot. The longer takes and slow rhythm of the film replicate the routine and mindset of Tell, and are contrasted by the head-spinning, erratic and distorted camerawork of the military flashbacks. The licensed soundtrack has a smattering of fitting tunes, all complimenting the film’s attitude well.
Isaac delivers an excellent performance here. Calm, cool, lean and collected, yet also uncomfortable and distant. He perfectly captures the sense that his character has lost a part of himself. He and Tye Sheridan’s Curtis are a strange pairing. The latter also sharing several of the same qualities as Tell. It’s just a shame the payoff for their journey doesn’t really have any substantial emotional impact at all. Tiffany Haddish brings charm, charisma and a snappiness to her role, and Willem Dafoe also makes an extended cameo appearance, but doesn’t get too much to do.
The Card Counter is a solid slow-burner that is anchored by Isaac’s impressive performance and Schrader’s utilisation of distinct directorial traits and taking inspiration from his previous works. However, the pacing, structure and at times undeniably uninteresting plot elements do hold it back, as well as a lack of investment in the characters.