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The Card Counter: Less Than a Perfect Hand

Posted by December 19th, 2021 No Comments »

The Card Counter (2021)
Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan & Willem Dafoe

Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, which means he gets to direct a film every five years and we are all supposed to pay attention. I haven’t seen very many of them, so I am in no way a Schrader aficionado. I do, however, know he crafts compelling stories, and, if he can get the right actors, most of his films are successful.

Oscar Issac was definitely the right actor for the lead role in in Schrader’s latest film, The Card Counter. His performance as William Tell, a gambler who taught himself how to count cards during an eight-year stint in military prison, was captivating yet understated. Isaac lets the character’s emotions percolate under the surface for most of the film before exploding in the third act, just as the story arc of the film’s deplorable protagonist is completed.

Where the film fails is with its supporting cast. La Linda (a headhunter and financial backer for people with unscrupulous talents) and Cirk (a young man with a death wish driven by vengeance), played by Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan, respectively, are unimpressive as two key figures in the “I can finally right my wrongs” portion of Tell’s life. Both seem to be phoning it in. Haddish in particular is in over her head alongside Isaac, but makes up for her lack of dramatic skill with on screen charm. As Cirk, Sheridan, on the other hand, has no charm. His character is presumably meant to hang around and annoy our lead character as well as the viewer. This works to some extent, but “The Lone Wolf and Cub” interaction between he and Issac never quite gels. Isaac’s performance takes this challenging script and makes it plausible, but neither Haddish or Sheridan are at his level and the film suffers greatly because of it.

The cinematography is lush and rich, which is surprising since 90% percent of the film takes place inside fluorescent lit casinos. There is a cinematic trick used to clue the viewer to past and present timeframes that is unique and disorientating. But describing it in full would spoil revelations, and I ain’t the spoiling type. Unfortunately, the last act doesn’t pay off and feels unfulfilling. This may have been at least partly remedied by cutting out the last scene, but I have a feeling the studio needed Haddish to shine. Thing is, she didn’t.

Despite the film’s uneven cast, I still recommend checking it out. It has a Scorcese-esque quality that will suck you in, and Isaac is a burgeoning star.

If the Film that made Schrader famous, Taxi Driver, is an A, then his latest film in a string of mediocre films is a C+.

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