The Oscar Isaac fall season has officially kicked off with “The Card Counter,” directed by Paul Schrader who recently directed “First Reformed” and wrote “Taxi Driver” and “First Reformed.” Oscar Isaac continues to flash shades of Al Pacino in his performance of “The Card Counter,” though that stellar performance cannot save the film from feeling familiar to other works from Schrader.
Oscar Isaac’s character of William Tell in “The Card Counter” has the slicked-back hair of Michael Corleone and the same tenacity in his eyes that a younger Al Pacino showed. Isaac also has the same ability to get big in scenes where he is required to yell. All of this bodes well for his performance, as he displays a dead man walking behind his eyes. Tell is trying to conquer some of his demons of the past, and that past is slowly uncovered throughout. Tell is addicted to gambling, but he is fortunately not constantly running from trouble like a Howard Ratner in “Uncut Gems” or Axel Freed in “The Gambler” (1974). It’s a much different type of gambling film that has a very deliberate pace.
Whether it is for better or for worse, “The Card Counter” feels like a Paul Schrader film. It begins in a promising manner, with the voiceover found in Schrader’s collaborations with Scorsese (who serves as a producer on the film) such as “Taxi Driver.” Isaac’s voiceover is initially used to explain the game of Blackjack in a digestible way. The voiceover returns multiple times to bring us inside the mind of Tell’s mind, including a few scenes where he is writing in a journal very similarly to Ethan Hawke’s character in Schrader’s “First Reformed.”
Schrader does flash some stylistic choices in “The Card Counter.” Most notably the sequences that bring us to the prisons Tell was in. The camera has a dizzying VR effect that feels like using Google Earth. It’s a choice that makes the prison feel even more enclosed than it is. During scenes of one-on-one conversation, Schrader puts actors at the forefront of the shot. The is such focus on the faces of the actors, and that could be a misstep if not for great performances. At other times, Schrader chooses to leave actions off-screen. Two characters fight and all the audience can hear are the grunts, screams, and hits of the two characters as the camera does not follow them into the next room, leaving it up to the audience’s imagination to figure out what exactly is happening.
“The Card Counter” is filled with good performances, Isaac is obviously the standout, but both Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan shine, Sheridan especially during a scene where his character is confronted in a motel room. William Dafoe plays another unhinged and corrupt character, and is good in the limited time he is actually on-screen. However, the lack of screen time is a fault of the film. The premise of the film promises a “revenge thriller,” where Isaac and Sheridan’s characters have the same target in mind (Dafoe), but that plot takes a backseat to exploring the relationship between Isaac and Sheridan’s characters as they travel the country. That would be excusable if not for the finale of the film feeling rushed and thrown together.
Oscar Isaac continues to cement himself as one of the best working actors today. Even if “The Card Counter” is a bit muddled, it is filled with great performances and Schrader is still a steady screenwriter and director. “The Card Counter” just treads familiar waters at times doesn’t fulfill its premise in a satisfying way. Fans of Oscar Isaac will be happy, and he still has “Dune” and “Scenes from a Marriage” coming later this fall.