Coming from the man who penned some of cinema’s best character studies in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and made a remarkably unsettling directorial comeback with First Reformed, the latest of Paul Schrader’s portraits of damaged, guilt-ridden men comes with the deck stacked in its favor.
The Card Counter is about gambling in the same way Taxi Driver is about driving, which is to say it isn’t, really. Yes, there are some stylish blackjack and poker routines, building up to a high-stakes finale, but the core of the film is its exploration of guilt and rehabilitation. It tackles lofty moral issues, following a former soldier who served time for the unspeakable acts he committed on prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and asks questions about revenge, repentance, and atonement and leaves the audience to come up with their own answers.
Oscar Isaac’s subtly named William Tell is yet another arrow in Schrader’s quiver of complex protagonists tortured by their own past, and like Ethan Hawke before him, Isaac’s performance is both deeply unsettling and absolutely transfixing to watch. Schrader’s script wrestles with guilt, trauma and repressed rage with all the precision and expertise of a man who has been writing these stories his entire career, and presents one of his most compelling and layered character studies yet.
Unfortunately, not all the film’s elements are quite as elegantly executed. The Card Counter has more comedic beats than any of Schrader’s other films, and even if those light-hearted moments weren’t so jarringly dissonant with the tortured self-reflection at the centre of the piece, the jokes themselves aren’t particularly effective.
Isaac is flanked by Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan, two great actors who give decent individual performances here, but it’s hard to overstate how little chemistry the trio has. Of course, you could read into it as a by-product of William’s years of solitude and deteriorated social skills, but it’s hard to think of it as intentional when you’re squirming with embarrassment at just how flat some of the joke deliveries fall. Haddish fares somewhat better as a romantic foil to Isaac, but it feels as if the film is only begrudgingly rushing through the motions of their relationship so it can rely on them as an emotional anchor point for its finale.
Schrader’s direction here is so understated it feels almost pedestrian at times. There’s a tangible filmic look to the picture that captures the atmosphere of the sad, dingy casinos perfectly, but the framing and composition don’t quite do enough to capture the old school vibe it’s aiming for. On the other hand, there are also some inspired, eye-catching sequences that stand out even more because of the rest of the film’s relatively flat visual language.
The Card Counter certainly doesn’t accomplish everything it sets out to do, but it’s a slick, breezy throwback that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and feels just modern enough to stay relevant. It’s safe to say that Isaac’s magnetic performance absolutely carries the film in yet another addition to Schrader’s character studies in sin and shame, but there’s easily enough to love in The Card Counter to outweigh the bad hands it deals along the way.