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Review: The Card Counter (2021)

The Card Counter (2021)

Directed by: Paul Schrader

Premise: An ex-con (Oscar Isaac) travels the nation living off winnings from gambling tables. He takes a directionless younger man (Tye Sheridan) under his wing and accepts backing from a financer (Tiffany Haddish) to participate in high stakes poker games.

What Works: The Card Counter is a Paul Schrader movie and like most of the filmmaker’s other work this is an intense film about a troubled man in search of redemption. Much of The Card Counter takes place in casinos and the card games are presented with a great deal of detail. The protagonist is a skilled player because he’s able to see the patterns and waits to strike when the time is right. He also understands the larger system; the gambler knows that he’s tolerated within the casinos so long as his winnings are modest and he keeps a low profile, taking home enough to pay his way but not so much as to draw attention. Oscar Isaac plays the lead and Isaac is a good choice for the role. He’s in tune with Schrader’s tone and the role requires Isaac to covey his character through the subtleties of his posture and gaze which Isaac does well. The Card Counter also has some impressive camerawork by cinematographer Alexander Dynan.

What Doesn’t: The Card Counter finds Paul Schrader revisiting familiar themes that he’s done better in other movies, namely First Reformed and Hardcore. This film has some unique touches, especially its connection with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal but overall The Card Counter never shakes the sense that Schrader is repeating himself here. The various pieces of the story never quite come together. The film has a lot of different elements that are closely linked but they never align meaningfully. Oscar Isaac’s character is approached by a troubled young man, played by Tye Sheridan, and Isaac’s character sees an opportunity for redemption. But the film doesn’t do anything very interesting with that possibility. Part of the problem is that Sheridan’s character remains largely undefined. We don’t get a sense of who he is and the bond between Sheridan and Isaac’s characters is never very emotionally involving, so there is little at stake for either character. Tiffany Haddish is cast as a financier who backs Isaac’s card player. She’s intended to be a femme fatale but Haddish is not up to the role. The character is written as a potentially dangerous and duplicitous figure but none of that is evident in Haddish’s performance. Too much of the character is on the surface especially for a movie about gambling. 

Bottom Line: The Card Counter has elements that are interesting and well crafted but on the whole the film is a disappointment. It aims for a bigger statement about redemption and power but doesn’t quite get there.

Episode: #869 (September 19, 2021)