Paul Schrader, known for the searing “First Reformed” in 2017, “Raging Bull” in 1980, and of course “Taxi Driver” which catapulted Jodie Foster’s career in 1976, is back in the driver’s seat with “The Card Counter.” Starring Oscar Isaac as a troubled military ex-con, Schrader delves deeply into guilt and forgiveness in this troubling and flawed film which loses direction and pace only to wrap up its loose ends neatly with a bow.
That’s not to say “The Card Counter” isn’t worth seeing. Schrader takes on three storylines, all of which are interwoven and their concurrent presentation hooks you as you walk along Isaac’s character of Bill. We know from the very beginning that Bill has made mistakes; mistakes for which he paid behind bars. And with that time, he learned some very valuable lessons—how to count cards to win at Black Jack. Now released, Bill flies under the radar, using his knowledge and talents to make a living. A happenstance convention places Bill in a room where Major John Gordo (Willem Defoe) is speaking. A young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan) slips Bill his number to discuss Bill’s past and possible future. Which path will Bill choose, revenge or forgiveness?
From this point, Bill takes the young man under his wing, attempting to steer him in a more positive direction other than fulfilling a revenge plot. In order to help Cirk, Bill must find higher stakes and a backer who comes in the form of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). The three travel the country, making a name for Bill and winning, but the past is a difficult thing to shake as we find Bill’s demons haunting him and wrestling with doing the right thing.
The story starts with promise as we learn about the intricacies of card counting as Bill narrates this portion. It’s reminiscent of “The Big Short” as it plunges us into a previously unknown topic, enlightening us yet still confusing us. Bill plays poker against some odd characters, particularly Mr. USA with his obnoxious chants and cheers, but these tournaments which could have been nail biters, are just a vehicle for the story to focus upon Bill’s past traumas and decisions. We learn of the military torture and Cirk’s father’s relationship to the protocol that Gordo instituted and Bill implimented. Flashbacks take us to horrific conditions and events that are visually and emotionally disturbing, but we can’t unsee what was just shown. These images haunt us as they haunt our character Bill, creating a sense of removed empathy with him.
The story seems to leave something behind. While we understand why Bill is helping Cirk avoid a devastating path of no return, the emotional connection between the two is missing. Schrader, as writer and director, makes no bones about the core of this film. Forgiveness. Being punished for wrong-doing is one thing, but forgiving yourself for wrong-doing is quite another. And on yet another prong of the forgiveness spoke, is vengeance, meeding out your own punishment for being wronged. All of these are spokes are of the same wheel; and all of these impact Bill and Cirk differently. Perhaps Bill’s age invokes wisdom, that of which he hopes to impart upon Cirk. It’s a captivating conversation, but the story itself slips and slides too much as it focuses upon the gambling, not the card counting, resulting in the the pace feeling more like a snail than a high-intensity game.
The casting in this film seems odd with both Sheridan and Haddish. Sheridan’s stiff and stifled performance elicits a questioning of why Bill wants so badly to help Sheridan’s character. His measured delivery, emotionless, is empty. His supposed rage is too tempered as he comes off as a misguided directionless and apathetic teen. Haddish, feeling quite comfortable and giving us a new layer of her acting skills is natural in her performance. She never appears to be acting, but the role itself is odd and Haddish doesn’t pull off the wheeler and dealer of the high-stakes gambling world.
Isaac, however, gives us a haunting performance. We fully believe he has suffered the traumas and cannot forgive himself for those he inflicted upon others. He is a broken man and many of the pieces will never be found. And Isaac’s captivatingly raw yet understated delivery elevates the story to a more evocative level, making us forgive it what it lacks in energy and direction.
Of course, with Schrader, you’re going to expect unique cinematography and lighting which he delivers on a silver platter. Use of a fisheye lens creates an even more jarring image as captors abuse those incarcerated in disturbingly horrific ways. Lighting and color accentuate the scenes as does the musical score. Schrader always creates a film that emphatically punctuates each and every scene with the very important ancillary elements and “The Card Counter” beautifully exemplifies this.
“The Card Counter” is a visceral exploration of forgiveness, but unfortunately, has numerous missteps in pacing, an inconsistent performance from Sheridan, and an ending that disappoints.
2 1/2 Stars