At 75 years old, Paul Schrader is showing no signs of slowing down. The screenwriter of such legendary films as TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, and the director of such emblematic early 1980s hits as AMERICAN GIGOLO and CAT PEOPLE, is back with THE CARD COUNTER, a new film that he both wrote and directed. Like many of his stories, this one also deals with redemption.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac, DUNE; the STAR WARS franchise) is, as the film’s title indicates, a card counter. It’s a skill he taught himself while in prison. Now on the outside, he drifts from cheap casino to cheap casino playing black jack and poker, winning just enough money to put him on the casino operators’ radar but not enough to provoke them into banishing him from their premises. One day he notices that a security seminar is taking place at an Atlantic City casino where he’s gambling. The speaker that day is Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe, AQUAMAN; A FAMILY MAN; JOHN WICK), who was Tell’s superior officer and mentor at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Tell goes in a sits down next to a young man. Cirk (Tye Sheridan, the X-MEN franchise), or “‘Kirk’ with a ‘c'”, we soon learn, is the son of a man who may have served at Abu Ghraib with Tell. He lets Tell know that he blames Gordo for his father’s suicide and now he wants revenge. Tell, who has lived his post-prison life anonymously, decides it’s time for a change. He takes up an offer proposed to him by gambling acquaintance La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, TV’s THE CARMICHAEL SHOW), and he decides to take Cirk under his wing.
Right from the opening titles, there’s a strong late ’70s/early ’80s vibe going on with THE CARD COUNTER even though it’s obviously set in the present day. I’m not sure why that is except that Schrader may be stuck in his glory days. Nevertheless, THE CARD COUNTER is a brooding, noir-ish story about a man who has found structure and order to his life by living in the shadows of the gambling world. It’s his coping mechanism after an horrific stint as an interrogator for the American government. Isaac is certainly up for the challenge, delivering a performance that is emotionless and monotonal. One gets the impression even before the film’s climax that it wouldn’t take much to nudge Tell over the edge. Like Schrader’s other film characters, Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta and Reverend Ernst Toller, Tell is a tortured soul who searches for redemption for past actions. He finds it in Cirk, whom he tries to guide onto a path that won’t find the young man ending up like him.
I really wanted to like this film more than I did. The performances are all okay, although I can’t decide if Haddish, in her first on screen dramatic role, is miscast or underutilized. Someone like Kerry Washington may have brought more gravitas to the role but La Linda isn’t a key part of the story. Schrader regular, Dafoe, is definitely underutilized here though. The problem with the film is that it underdelivers on the climax. In years and movies past, Schrader would have had the budget to show that scene on-screen. Here, it’s off-screen; all we hear are voices and muffled sounds. The rest is left to the audience’s imagination as the camera shows the shadow of the morning sun creep across the living room floor. Even in Schrader’s last film, the hugely underrated FIRST REFORMED, the moment of truth isn’t shown but there it works. Here it doesn’t.
The film premiered in competition at the Venice International Film Festival a few weeks ago. It’s playing now at our cinemas in Hong Kong. Isaac’s gripping performance makes the film worth watching but as far as Paul Schrader films go, he’s done better.
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