Premiering in select theaters this week, “The Card Counter” is Paul Schrader’s newest release. Schrader famously penned many of Martin Scorsese’s most critically acclaimed films, such as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” The film stars Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe.
With a title like “The Card Counter,” you would expect gambling to play a major role in the picture, which it most certainly does. That being said, this film is about much more than just raises, calls and folds, ultimately diving into some of the darker parts of human nature.
To start with the positives, Isaac is absolutely brilliant in this movie. Many primarily know him from the last three “Star Wars” films, but he has been putting in fantastic dramatic performances for the past decade. Isaac has another one here in “The Card Counter,” playing a hardened, inveterate gambler who travels from casino to casino winning small cash prizes. Isaac portrays this character excellently, showcasing the desensitized nature of the character through an unbending exterior.
The film is most certainly a character study, much like Schrader’s other pictures. It has several similarities to “Taxi Driver,” most notably in the cyclical, habitual life of the protagonist and the hints of a dark past within them. Both Travis Bickle – Robert De Niro’s character in “Taxi Driver” – and Isaac’s William Tell have an ambiguous nature about them, which the film uses intelligently to keep the audience on their toes.
That being said, “The Card Counter” never reaches the heights of “Taxi Driver.” Although that is a high margin to cross, this film has some pacing problems that make the film far less interesting than it can be. “Taxi Driver” is a slow-moving film as well, though it uses its pace to showcase the scenery of 1970s New York, dive further into De Niro’s character and introduce supporting characters.
“The Card Counter” has a very small cast, and the characters are far less interesting than anyone in “Taxi Driver.” Sheridan is the supporting actor given the most to work with, though his character is limited in concept and he doesn’t take the material to the next level. Haddish and Dafoe are not given much to work with in this film – no scenes show off their acting prowess.
The story does get more interesting as it progresses, albeit at a very slow pace. The film has some incredibly compelling scenes and a few brilliant ideas, but it just mixes those with some scenes that feel unimportant, making the audience travel on a sinusoidal wave of attentiveness throughout the picture. If the film could have utilized its concept a bit further, delivering more intense scenes at the poker table, and other plot developments, this film certainly could have reached another level in execution.
Ultimately, “The Card Counter” gives us another great performance from Oscar Isaac in a thriller that has interesting ideas, but never coalesces into a tantalizing product.