Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Runtime: 1 hr 52 mins
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scene and Nudity)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 28 October 2021
Synopsis: Redemption is the long game in Paul Schrader’s THE CARD COUNTER. Told with Schrader’s trademark cinematic intensity, the revenge thriller tells the story of an ex-military interrogator turned gambler haunted by the ghosts of his past decisions, and features riveting performances from stars Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe.
With a prestige name liked Martin Scorsese serving as executive producer, do not go into The Card Counter expecting a la The God of Gamblers. Gravity defying flying poker cards should be the last thing on your mind in this drama directed and written by legendary acclaimed screenwriter and director Paul Schrader.
Schrader’s world of scriptwriting is often filled with dark, troubled male characters. Just check out Taxi Driver, American Gigolo and Bringing Out The Dead. In The Card Counter, the character of William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is no different from Schrader’s past works. Instead of a PTSD suffering cab driver or a burned out paramedic, Tell is an ex-con, ex-veteran who now ply the casinos playing Blackjack going for small wins and staying way below the radar.
It’s not that all complicated until you see the man’s weird habits of covering his motel room with white bedsheets, sleeping in his jacket and pants and keeping a journal on his depressing thoughts and card adventures. What happened to his pyjamas? And what’s up with all the white bedsheets? Questions and more.
Clearly, William Tell or real-name Bill Tillich has an issue. His repetitive routine is however interrupted one day when a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) approached him about his half-baked plan on killing a retired Army Major named John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). It turns out that Tell and Cirk’s late father has served under Gordo in the Middle East. Cirk’s dad suffered from PTSD and shot himself after his service while Tell on the other hand landed himself in jail for a decade after following Gordo’s unorthodox torturing ways. As a private contractor, Gordo was never charged for his crimes which explains the revenge part.
At this point, this sounds like an exciting layered story that is going to take audiences down the revenge route and a snide look at America’s controversial way of taking down terrorists. Perhaps we might even learnt more about Tell’s talents and expertise in counting cards. Alas, this is not the movie you expect it to be. Instead of some intense destruction on the enemy, Gordo is never seen for the most part except for a brief flashback which has Gordo doing some pep talk with Tell. What we have in the end is Tiffany Haddish playing an underdeveloped character named La Linda, an agent who recruits talented poker players and occasionally offers some comic relief. No doubt she ends up as the love interest and no doubt she is woefully miscast.
Similar to Inside Llewlyn Davis, Oscar Isaac delivers a compelling performance even if Schrader’s scripting largely undermines his onscreen presence. Tell for the most part is a quiet, moody conflicted human being. He is a guy searching for redemption and perhaps Cirk is the person he thought he could save. Then again, Schrader is one filmmaker that never make a movie that is easily understood by casual audiences. There are so much going on in The Card Counter but strangely, too much screentime is focused on the cross-country poker games that pathetically get nowhere towards the end. It’s a slow-boiler done in the style of an 80’s artsy drama even the old school opening credits told you so. You know Isaac deals a cool hand though the stakes are too low to make it worthwhile.
(So much potential and opportunities in The Card Counter but it certainly doesn’t really translate here)
Review by Linus Tee