'First Reformed' astonished me when it arrived back in 2018. It was an ethereal piece of cinema that exhibited the strongest storytelling traits of its director, Paul Schrader. Sure, it focused on ideas he had traversed many times, and yes, the film did allude to the works of a few old masters. Even so, it exuded a rich, haunting quality that spoke to our real-life anxieties with an artful touch. Moreover, it brought a historic talent back to centre-stage after years in the VOD wilderness. Schrader returned via an exploration of his speciality - a tale of God's lonely man. So, consider it no surprise that's the route he's once again taken with his latest offering, 'The Card Counter'.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac, 'Inside Llewyn Davis') is a skilled gambler who has mastered the art of counting cards. He moves from casino to casino to exercise his talents, working off a simple philosophy: avoid attention by betting small and winning modestly. Tell doesn't seek fame, nor is he looking for trouble; he plays cards for solace, wandering the poker circuit like a nomad to escape his demons. However, his quiet existence shifts when he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan, 'Ready Player One'), an angry young man who pitches Tell a revenge plot aimed at a mutual enemy. Tell doesn't desire vengeance, and tries to divert Cirk from his homicidal crusade - but in doing so, he is forced to reckon with his own dark side.
As I mentioned, Schrader has delved into the voyages of tormented men for much of his career. Men in crisis who suppress their fury at a perceived or literal injustice, all before their despair terraforms into something violently nihilistic. And to a great extent, 'The Card Counter' can be viewed as another showing of Paul's old bag of tricks - but on this occasion, those features aren't as compelling. Once more, Schrader's protagonist journals throughout the story, and the use of voiceover isn't nearly as effective as it has been previously, with the protagonist offering minimal variation from Schrader's archetypal antihero. William Tell isn't as vulnerable as 'First Reformed's' Ernst Toller or as tenacious as 'Taxi Driver's' Travis Bickle, but regrettably, just another rendition of what we've seen before.
This is compounded by the film's often muddled storytelling. It takes a considerable amount of time before 'The Card Counter' finds its groove. For the lion's share, its pacing lacks vigour, and the interactions between characters play awfully stilted. These characters occupy a very awkward atmosphere from the outset. And although sometimes it feels intentional, there are many instances where it feels far from deliberate. But perhaps most noticeable is the film's meek attitude towards tension. Early on, the film seems to tease a push-and-pull as to whether William will choose legitimacy or retribution, but then oddly decides to do away with that mystery. The film takes some misguided steps and makes Schrader's trademark fixations lose a bit of their edge in the process.
Fortunately, some of these drawbacks are bailed out by the tremendous performance of Oscar Isaac. After recent work in franchises such as 'Star Wars' and 'X-Men', Isaac appears to relish forgoing the green screens in favour of something more intimate and character-driven. Although the character doesn't brim with dimension on the page, Isaac makes you feel the weariness of William. He dials back his innate charisma to present a man trying to keep his emotions at bay, scarred by his previous acts of expression. In the hands of a lesser actor, this requirement of restraint could easily spawn a colourless performance. However, Isaac is always able to find a captivating angle. He is one of our generation's most gifted actors, and his performance alone is reason to see the film.
These characters occupy a very awkward atmosphere from the outset. And although sometimes it feels intentional, on the contrary, there are many instances where it feels far from deliberate.
The rest of the performances, though, are a mixed bag. Despite strong showings in other films, Tye Sheridan is pretty shaky in the role of the acrimonious Cirk. Tiffany Haddish fares better as La Linda, a bankroller for pro-gamblers, but she too has some patchy moments in spite of a clear enthusiasm to expand beyond her wheelhouse. Neither of them has much natural chemistry with Isaac either, with the energy between the trio weirdly offbeat. Compared to the performance from Isaac, the pair struggle to make the most of their material.
All that said, there are still things to admire aside from Isaac's performance. Setting the story in the poker world is a masterstroke from Schrader. The grimy landscape dressed up with bright lights and garish colours is an ideal fit for the type of themes he explores. Schrader understands the seduction of gambling is hollow once you see past the vividness of it all. The film also provides its fair share of meditative brilliance, both behind and in front of the camera. A scene of William and La Linda strolling through a glowing garden is nothing short of hypnotising. Additionally, a confrontation of sorts between William and Cirk is absolutely mesmerising. Despite not all the pieces clicking together, 'The Card Counter' has its moments of magnetism.
In writing this review, it's hard to form a definitive stance on 'The Card Counter'. Few films can manage to make me alternate between feeling numb and awestruck. It lacks polish, and as a result, Schrader's usual setup feels quite tired. Everything is present for something dynamic, but we're only granted glimpses of that potential. Nevertheless, despite the film not being as refined as Schrader's other works, I'd still give it a lite recommendation. 'The Card Counter' offers a flawed but fascinating journey, and seeing the likes of Schrader and Isaac at work is never a bad beat.