#REVIEW: “THE CARD COUNTER”
Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) trained himself to count cards, and travels to casinos across the US playing Poker and winning small amounts of money along the way. He keeps to himself until he meets Cirk (Ty Sheridan), who has a tragic connection to William’s mysterious past. Seeing a bit of himself in Cirk, William decides to help him stay on the straight and narrow as best as he can.
That may all sound like a fairly standard redemption tale set in the world of gambling and poker, but when Gordo (Willem Dafoe) shows up and we learn about William’s involvement in Abu Ghraib, then THE CARD COUNTER turns into something else entirely.
Despite his mixing of genres, legendary Writer/Director Paul Schrader succeeds at making a compelling portrait of a broken and haunted man who wants to make a difference. He allows Isaac’s character to drive the Film with the same hard-boiled narration that propelled his work in First Reformed and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, adding a layer of psychological introspection along the way. I hung onto every single line. Where Schrader lost me was in his uncertainty over how we are to view Tell. Are we supposed to sympathize and see him as a tragic anti-hero, or as a monster? Schrader does not give any easy answers, but he also does not seem to know what profound message he is getting at by tying in poker with the horrors of Abu Ghraib (and his stylistic use of a fish eye lens in those moments does not do him any favours). I kept waiting for everything to click, and found myself at a loss when the Film concluded.
Much like Schrader’s thematic stylings, the acting from the Supporting Cast is a mixed bag. Dafoe is good, yet he is never given the opportunity to make the lasting impression he should have. Some may say he is phoning it in, but I genuinely do not think Dafoe knows how to do that. Tiffany Haddish has issues with her delivery throughout as love interest La Linda. She still needs to work on her dramatic chops, though I admire her for continuing to act out of her wheelhouse. Where she excels is in her chemistry with Isaac. It is palpable and steamy, and adds the layer of emotional resonance and heart that the Film needs. Sheridan is a bit uneven, yet tries his best despite knowing that he is punching above his weight class.
As expected, they all pale in comparison to Isaac, who towers over everyone with his enigmatic and frigid presence. You can see the pain in his eyes and facial expressions at any moment. He is a broken man who is unsure of his future and conflicted about his past. It is a dark and brooding performance from the brilliantly talented Actor, building on his character work from over the past decade. He goes deeper than the Film does and pours every ounce of energy he can into Tell. His narration could have used a bit of work though.
THE CARD COUNTER is a compelling and frustrating portrait of an individual who we are not sure if we should be cheering for. While Schrader’s writing is great as always, I am not sure he is certain of the message he wants to deliver. That said, it might not matter much because of how mesmerizing and brilliant Isaac is here. This is some of the best work he has ever committed to Film, and he more than makes up for the Film’s stumbles. He is practically incendiary.
VVS Films release THE CARD COUNTER on VOD/Digital Friday, October 1, 2021.
It is additionally playing in select theatres now.
*Please ensure you exercise caution in observing COVID-19 protocols if seeing this in-theatre.*