Watching Paul Schrader’s latest film is like sitting in an early ’90s medical center waiting room. While you wait, there isn’t much to occupy your time except to look at paintings, magazines or the outdated furniture.
Schrader creates a world in “The Card Counter” that’s inescapably dull on purpose. His characters have arrived at the complacent part of their lives, a familiar routine, as Oscar Isaac’s character explains. This intentional dullness translates to a lack of stimulation for the viewer.
While Isaac is either purposely or unintentionally doing a 1980s Robert De Niro, it’s comedian-turned-serious-actor Tiffany Haddish who brings life to the film. Whereas Schrader’s previous film, “First Reformed” (2017), had much to say and dynamic performers saying it, “The Card Counter” comes up empty-handed on both accounts.
The most unusual card player is William Tell (Isaac), as described by La Linda (Haddish). From city to city, casino to casino, he’s a man of few words with a dark past, who likes his routine. Tell meets a teenager at a seminar who brings back memories Tell would rather forget of his time as a military interrogator. The two strike up a connection, hit the road together and Tell takes La Linda up on an offer to gamble professionally.
Cirk (Tye Sheridan) wants revenge on Tell’s superiors, the ones who avoided blame when the brutality of their work was exposed and destroyed the boy’s family. Tell decides to play for big money to provide a future for this young man who’s wasting his life on revenge and the sins of his father. Tell’s shot at redemption might save two lives if he plays his cards right.
“Roulette is the only smart casino bet,” Tell says of a game we never see him play.
Every conversation in the film occurs as if the life has been sucked out of the characters. This could be because all three performances feel like the actors read different scripts — or at least interpreted them differently. Or is the director intentionally presenting them this way?
Either way, when La Linda is talking, you’re always waiting for a punch line that never comes. When Tell stares at another person, you’re waiting for him to get violent, and Sheridan has never looked so beat down as in his appearance here. The film has shards of sarcasm throughout, but Schrader keeps it dark and downtrodden, like the rest of his work.
The studio approved description for the film uses words like “intensity” and “thriller.” The intensity, however, is muffled and the thrills are suppressed; even the one scene of violence is shown off screen.
The subtext in Schrader’s script is about trauma and coping mechanisms, and Isaac deserves credit for his acute portrayal, which is subtle to the point that we almost miss what he’s delivering.
Schrader certainly succeeds at making the audience feel stuck right along with these characters in their seedy hotel rooms and old burgundy casino furnishings.
Final Thought: “The Card Counter” isn’t a thriller, gambling film or even much of a revenge film, but it’s moody from beginning to end.