Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish, Willem Dafoe and Alexander Babara
Written and Directed by Paul Schrader
When the phrase, ‘Directed by Paul Schrader’ appears on any cinema screen, there’s a certain sense of dread that can form in a viewer’s mind. Known for his solitary and tormented characters, worlds which seem lacking in any joy, and yet a great awareness of how as humans we can be united – and therefore divided – it’s this harsh edge which has kept the Writer-Director above water in Hollywood for nearly fifty years.
When it comes to Schraders core themes, ‘The Card Counter’ slots in very easily amongst the rest of his filmography. Oscar Isaac’s lead role as William Tell – a dedicated ex-con who’s developed a talent for Poker during his time behind bars – seems like the kind of man who wouldn’t seem out of place in a police lineup with any of Schrader’s previous characters beside him. This idea of having a self-reflexive solitary protagonist who keeps either a notebook of thoughts, or simply delivers them through voiceover, is a constant theme within Schraders films, and can almost feel at times as the most pure instance of Shrader conversing directly with the audience. It could be easily argued that after implementing this style for so long, it’s become a stale and played-out technique – but within these cold worlds which the director creates, this navigation of thoughts seems necessary as a way to enter the frequently closed-off mind of his leads.
‘The Card Counter’ makes great use of cinematography and editing within certain areas of the film to deliver moments of extreme impact. Gruelling flashbacks to William Tell’s earlier life within the darkest pits of military intelligence extraction are made ever-more disturbing by a brilliant use of cinematography. Like the opposite of a fish-eye lens, the screen becomes distorted, and yet opens itself up even further to the viewer, ensuring that not a single painful detail is missed. Sadly, it can’t be said that this type of innovation is maintained throughout the film, and often the overtly-precise nature of both the look and style of the modern cameras which Schrader works with, can make a story feel as if it loses its edge slightly – particularly when compared to the dark grain of the directors films throughout the seventies and eighties. It would be harsh to directly compare eras of film which are half a lifetime apart, but there’s just something about classic Schrader films which you can’t help but look for in his later work. ‘The Card Counter’, however, seems to become at times something new within Schrader’s filmography, and whilst there are moments where it succeeds in developing new ideas, the overall aesthetic can, at times, fall easily into the tropes which we expect to see from this director.
In terms of performance, the cast do an all round solid job. Oscar Isaac and Tye Sheridan build a strong relationship which isn’t always explicitly laid out for the audience – developing a sense of uncertainty which evolves intriguingly as the story plays out. Tiffany Haddish can at times feel out of place and fairly wooden, but the dialogue that she’s delivering doesn’t do much to help her develop an interesting character. It’s this type of inconsistency within Schraders writing which makes his films interesting to watch, but a far cry from the great heights which audiences know he’s been capable of achieving.
‘The Card Counter’ isn’t a film to be entered lightly, and deals with some very heavy topics. However, it encounters these ideas in a way which still feels fresh and exciting, despite them being closely intertwined with Paul Schrader’s classic style. I’d definitely still say that the film is worth a watch, just so long as you know what you’re getting yourself in for.