Written by Taylor Baker
Everyone’s favorite loud mouthed film critic uncle turned director is back with a brash Atlantic City government intrigue gambling film. Schrader once again leans on a heavily burdened middle aged man to communicate a story of penance if not atonement. Oscar Isaac plays that central figure who goes by the name William Tell, which as we come to find out is actually a pseudonym. His real name William Tillich isn’t one he wants to parade about. He’s been tried and convicted in connection with the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. So it’s easy to see why he’d want to avoid any extra attention, as it would doubtlessly not lead to a positive interaction.
Rounding out the players of The Card Counter are Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, and frequent Schrader collaborator Willem Dafoe. Dafoe here is the only supporting player without a weak moment. Which is a shame as he’s only very briefly in the film. Haddish and Sheridan each have moments, but there’s something off balance and out of key when all three (Isaac, Haddish, and Sheridan) end up in a scene together. It’s not simply that the performances are bad, but the tonalities of the characters themselves clash in an almost indescribable way. Undercutting the moment and leaving one focused on the actual acting that each is doing in the moment. Which not only dissipates the narrative value but the film itself.
The Card Counter tells the story of Bill Tell after getting out of Leavenworth Penitentiary. He becomes, you guessed it, a card counter. Surfing the highways, byways, and interstates of America from Casino to Racino collecting modest sums for his efforts along the way. Until one fateful day when he encounters Cirk, played by Tye Sheridan while they’re both watching a presentation by Major Gordo, played by Dafoe. Cirk writes down his phone number as Tell is leaving and asks him to call him. Over the next dozen or so minutes we learn that Cirk’s dad was in Abu Ghraib alongside Tell and that he’d beaten the boy and his mother until one day she left without a word. Shortly after that Cirk’s father shot himself. Leaving Cirk alone, and pondering revenge. Haddish’s La Linda offers Tell with a way to earn a significant sum of money that he could use to set Cirk back on the right path. Paying off his and his mother’s debts with a nest-egg for him to go back and complete his education. Away from vengeance and back toward a future.
Isaac returns to the heights of his abilities as a performer. If you’re familiar with my thoughts on Oscar Isaac, you may know I thought he was one of the best and brightest up and coming performers up through 2015’s Show Me A Hero and Mojave. Then he was waylaid by vapid blockbuster fair like 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse and 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He had a handful of good performances between that stretch and now, in At Eternity’s Gate(alongside Willem Dafoe) and Suburbicon. But by and large the Julliard graduate that took us by storm with Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina seemed to have evaporated. Exchanging complex character performances for larger than life caricatures in movies that sell well but have the nutritional quality of a McDonald’s hamburger. Perhaps like me you’ve been along for the ride since 2006, with Pu-239. Which makes this return to form so thrilling. Isaac’s Bill Tell goes from cheery scallywag to torturer in seconds. He rivets us with his physicality, using posture to enormous effect whenever he’s sitting down, and always seeming withdrawn despite his shoulders lacking so much as a hint of a hunch. Dialogue is spat out like venom or professed breathily like a loosened secret evaporating from his lips. In the scheme of things it’s hard to say if this is a return to form for Isaac or just evidence that with the right project and director he can still act at the very top of the craft.
Schrader is running and gunning, the camera peels back, forward, and along–in hallways, Casino floors, and hotel rooms. There’s a particularly stupefyingly gorgeous scene in which Haddish and Isaac go for a walk in a park adorned and bedecked in lights. But even in the heights of a scene so magnetic and engaging as this aerial light sequence the edges of the project are peeling up in the corners and we can see the tape trying to hold it together. Just before the aforementioned aerial sequence begins Isaac and Haddish are talking, which is moderately okay, as the sound quality of the muxing is rough. But then they turn and face each other as they’re talking and we can see the lines of dialogue they’re delivering don’t line up with the lips moving on screen. This is just one egregious example in a sequence that should have been resplendent of many. The ADR(Automated Dialogue Replacement) throughout the film is often off, which is a real shame because Schrader brought his cards to the table and to see him undercut by a post production snafu that pops up frequently seems unfair. The Card Counter is a sturdy if mishandled hot-blooded drama. But most importantly, it’s a sure sign that Schrader isn’t close to done.
The Card Counter Trailer
The Card Counter is currently in wide theatrical release.