The Card Counter will hit theaters on Sept. 10.
In The Card Counter, Oscar Isaac is a card shark cruising casinos for easy prey, warning, with a cold dead-eyed stare, “Any man can tilt.” He certainly looks the part of a shark, his greying hair slicked back smooth across his scalp, his clothes dark with a slight sheen, his movements smooth and graceful. That is, until this stoic gambler “tilts” into violence. Centering on a coolly predatorial anti-hero swimming in the morally murky waters of professional gambling, The Card Counter looks like a sexy thriller on its surface. But writer/director Paul Schrader pulls a bait-and-switch, delivering a navel-gazing drag that treats a real-life atrocity as provocative production design.
Following in the footsteps of Schrader’s screenplays for First Reformed, American Gigolo, and Taxi Driver, The Card Counter centers on a tormented loner. William Tell (Isaac) has a dark past that he avoids by bouncing around the gambling circuit. He knows people, but no one gets to know him — until he develops a soft spot for a headstrong and heartbroken young man (Tye Sheridan), who he takes under his wing. Motivated to save “The Kid” from tilting, Tell teams with a sultry financial-backer named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who sets him up with the cash to bet — and potentially win big.
The Card Counter seems poised for gambling action: big bets, crushing losses, an arrogant nemesis, and a final showdown. Through an episodic string of poker scenes, Schrader sets up an apparent antagonist in a cocky card player, who drapes himself in American flag apparel and chants with every win, “USA! USA! USA!” However, the card games themselves seem to bore the director. Far from exciting, they play out without much suspense or sense of stakes. Not even the final poker showdown is thrilling, as Schrader abruptly discards this could-be climax for another, more violent, option. This could have been an interesting choice, but it becomes infuriating as Schrader sets this fight off camera, leaving us in the next room to listen into bloody gurgles and crunching bones. He’s knowingly — even smugly — denying his audience the spectacle we’ve come to expect from such movies.
Though there’s plenty of prattle about card playing in Tell’s world-weary voiceover, this movie isn’t really about gambling. The Card Counter is actually about a “bad apple” grasping at redemption. Tell wants to help The Kid, because this card counter was once a military interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison, where he brutally tortured detainees. This isn’t a spoiler or a twist. Tell’s backstory is introduced early in the film through flashback sequences rife with violence. Shot in an extreme wide-angle lens, these scenes bend at the walls and bodies of the frame. Perhaps this garish choice that visually distorts its setting is meant to signal that this prison is unusual or nightmarish. However, the graphic torture montage gets that point across well enough without the music video theatrics.
Despite this incendiary setting, Schrader has no apparent interest in the politics or the torture victims. He is only interested in the aftermath of its American agents, so the Abu Ghraib scandal is callously employed as little more than an inflammatory adornment of Schrader’s latest anti-hero.
Schrader’s worldview seems to be one where violence is regrettably inevitable. While that’s made for some compelling films, The Card Counter is not among them. Here, he is a provocateur without purpose, just throwing wild punches. There is money, sex, and death, yet little has much impact because his bleak tone is so thorough that the film becomes gratingly one-note. Still, Isaac manages to brew intensity behind those cold shark eyes. When Schrader’s script finally gives Tell the chance to break from his cool exterior, Isaac comes alive in a jolting ferocity. Sadly, his co-stars can’t meet his level.
An accomplished comedian, Haddish struggles to shake her jaunty cadence, which clashes with Schrader’s dour tone. For too long, it just feels like she and Isaac are in different films. Her charisma crackles, but her chemistry with Isaac doesn’t ignite until very late in the game. Then there’s Sheridan, who is gangly and lost as “The Kid.” Schrader’s dialogue feels clunky coming out of his smirking growl; lines like “the apples weren’t bad. The barrels were bad,” feel forced, not felt. Simply put, the casting gambles don’t pay off, tilting to meh instead of mesmerizing.