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Photo: ‘The Card Counter’
Oscar Isaac has made a name for himself throughout the 2010s. With films like ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, the ‘Star Wars’ franchise and ‘Annihilation’, he’s become a bona-fide movie star, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. His first feature-length film of the 2020s comes as ‘The Card Counter’, a crime drama film written and directed by acclaimed director Paul Schrader and executive produced by the one and only Martin Scorsese. Here, Shrader takes another male protagonist struggling with personal demons and puts them in an interesting tale about gambling, deceit and most of all, redemption. Isaac brings nuance to his role and his performance shines here. The movie is long but it is entertaining, and the payoff at the end is well worth the 100-or-so minutes of buildup. It’s quiet but suspenseful, and this slow-burn attitude is what sets ‘The Card Counter’ apart from other similar crime drama films.
A Brief Synopsis of ‘The Card Counter’
‘The Card Counter’ tells the story of William Tell (Isaac), a man who spends his days in casinos across the country, playing games like Blackjack and Poker. With a mysterious past, he often goes from city to city, sleeping in hotel rooms and using his skill of counting cards to win modest sums of money. William does what he can to stay out of the limelight, until a chance encounter with a woman named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) that gives him the chance to put his name out there and make more money than ever. Meanwhile, he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man whose father has ties to William’s past.
William decides to take Cirk under his wing and bring him along on his cross-country poker travels. He begins to forge a connection with the boy, one that may change him from the shady, moody man he is. With this growing relationship, along with dealing with the mounting pressure of high-stakes poker, William must confront his past to finally find the peace he’s been looking for.
A Compelling Lead Performance
This premise alone sounds interesting enough, but I’m willing to bet that after reading this you probably asked yourself, “Wait, have I seen this movie before?” ‘The Card Counter’ definitely feels like a movie that’s been done countless times before in multiple movies. The only difference, however, is that those movies didn’t have Oscar Isaac in the lead role. Isaac’s always been a great actor, and his performance as Llewyn Davis in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ solidified that for me. So seeing him here, it wasn’t a surprise to see him take control of the film, but rather how much he took control of it. He was always the best part of every moment he was on-screen, which was almost every scene. Isaac brought the perfect blend of mean-mugging and calmness that gave William the likable edge he needed to mix with his moody persona. He’s a standup guy, but at any second he could blow his fuse.
Sadly, the same can’t really be said for the rest of the actors. Everyone else in this movie was either serviceable or just not that great. Tye Sheridan was okay as Cirk, but he never really stood out in the film. His role as a type of surrogate son for William was smart-theming and a nice way to soften William’s hardened exterior a bit, but it never felt like he fully came into his own as a character. With Tiffany Haddish, I was disappointed. Considering her history as a mostly-comedic actor, I was hoping to see something big from her, something surprising that would prove her to be a force to be reckoned with in drama, not just comedy.
Instead, her character of La Linda feels sort of one-note, just a woman who takes an interest in William and is curious about his past. She cracked jokes here and there, but she just always felt like a character that was there only for the benefit of William instead of having any substance herself. Oh, and did I forget to mention, Willem Dafoe is here too! Dafoe fanatics might want to hold their breath as his role here isn’t too grand, but he does great with what he’s given and there’s an intense scene at the end with him and Oscar Isaac that’s worth the wait. Overall, the acting wasn’t awful or anything, but it would’ve been nice to see more realized characters around Oscar Isaac and his performance.
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But How Was the Movie?
Despite all this, ‘The Card Counter’ was an overall solid film. It takes its time with its main character, exploring his mental state as he travels through casinos with Cirk. William is a very interesting character, someone who’s clearly haunted by his past and has a lot to go through, and Schrader does an excellent job portraying his mental anguish on screen. The flashbacks are shot in a weird way that makes everything look distorted, and it creates a chilling atmosphere that helps define our protagonist. Everything about this film is in the characters, as every scene is an analysis of William, Cirk, and La Linda. Cirk wants exact revenge against the man who framed his father for war crimes, and William tries to steer him away, seeing nothing but trouble down that path.
William takes a liking for the kid, and there’s a father-son dynamic between the two that grounds the film in a human way. La Linda clearly cares about William, even if their relationship started out as a purely professional one, and she becomes someone that the former army veteran can finally open up to. There’s a solid emotional core here that is carried by Isaac’s performance. The story itself is a bit too slow for its own good and it takes its time exploring these people a little too much.
The story could’ve honestly been cut down by 10 or 15 minutes and the film would have flowed a little bit better. Even with this flow pace, however, ‘The Card Counter’ ends with a great third act that picks up the pace a lot more and still delivers the deep character study the film is bringing. The action picks up, there’s less moodiness and it ends on a note that comes full circle for William. In the end, Paul Schrader’s newest film can be a bit slow, but it’s still entertaining and a good character study. It ends on the perfect note and gives you a lot to think about after watching. For any Isaac or Schrader fans, this is a worthwhile entry in their filmography.
Cast and Crew:
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Directed by: Paul Schrader | Written by: Paul Schrader
Cinematography by: Alexander Dynan | Edited by: Benjamin Rodriguez Jr.
Music by: Robert Leveon Been
By Ben Ross
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Ben Ross is a writer at Hollywood Insider. He loves watching films and finding the message behind the art. With a love for movies and television, his goal is to understand as much as he can about anything he watches, and engage with readers about different topics related to the industry. He aims to find work that sheds a light on issues not really talked about and showcase it, feeling that it is important to understand the truth. Together with his readers, he hopes to celebrate beautiful stories in film and explore topics that are worth discussing – a value that defines Hollywood Insider.