Film review: The Card Counter
4 / 5 ( 1 vote )
Written by Belinda
A misguided, self-indulgent evaluation of morality.
Director: Paul Schrader Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish Certificate: 15
Recently released from military prison, Oscar Isaac’s ever-composed card-player William is hitting one blackjack table after another, until he finds a cause worth championing. Backed by La Linda (an undeniably slick Tiffany Haddish) and bringing the vengeful-but-misguided Cirk (Tye Sheridan) along for the ride, he sets his sights on the World Series of Poker finals.
Paul Schrader’s most recent effort – hampered by Covid-19 precautions, and the director’s offensive outbursts about those precautions – lands exactly where you’d expect a Paul Schrader film about a card-counting-badass to end up. It would seem as though Schrader doesn’t write films, he writes characters, and everything else is just window dressing. However, without the urgent commentary of First Reformed or the detached anger of Taxi Driver, we’re simply left here with a man.
The man in question is the ever-brilliant Oscar Isaac, who does his best to bring the character to life, but the script seems so determined to make William cool that it often fails to do anything else. The relentless focus on Tell and his style, his silent strength, and his horrendous past leave the rest of the film to fend for itself a lot of the time – Haddish and Sheridan (both colossal talents) are used solely as sounding boards for Schrader’s script to bounce lazily written tough-guy lines off.
The issue isn’t necessarily that Tell isn’t cool. He is, in an incredibly clichéd way. Really, that encapsulates the whole picture – it isn’t bad, but there isn’t a single moment of intrigue or inspiration in the entire 112 minutes. Brooding in backlit doorways, glaring across poker tables and driving around in silence summarise Tell’s hobbies. Seeing the flaw in this, Schrader introduces a self-indulgent voiceover, which gives no further insight beyond delivering cheap card-game-based wisdom that lands barely the correct side of tedious.
Centered around Tell’s desire to repent for his past atrocities, no doubt there’s a lengthy discussion to be had regarding forgiveness, responsibility and blame surrounding his past, but this film provides very little to fuel that discussion that isn’t readily available with far more substance elsewhere – and throwing all its considerable weight behind that focus while relying on tired masculine stereotypes means the rest of the film is, frankly, a bust.