Few screenwriters influenced the New Hollywood movement more than Paul Schrader. The writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Mishima helped bridge the gap between Hollywood and European cinema.
With all this in mind, I was looking forward to watching his latest film, The Card Counter. Boasting Martin Scorsese as executive producer and Oscar Isaac as leading man, The Card Counter is a film that has a lot to deliver.
The film’s plot focuses on William Tell (played by Oscar Isaac)—a lonely gambler recently released after being incarcerated for abuses in Abu Ghraib prison. After listening in on a seminar given inside the casino building, Tell encounters Cirk (played by Tye Sheridan).
Cirk expresses his desire to collaborate with Tell in a revenge plot against Tell’s traitorous former superior John Gordo (played by Willem Dafoe), who also happened to have betrayed Circk’s father. Tell proceeds to take Cirk under his wing in an attempt to suppress his violent ambitions, but at the same time, Tell’s urge to confront his past demons begins to grow into something he can’t ignore.
Film buffs will probably recognize the similarity to Schrader’s most famous script: Taxi Driver. Both films center on a lonely drifter with PTSD who tries to suppress his violent urges. It’s a formula that’s worked for Schrader—a combination of Bresson’s reflectiveness and Hollywood’s glamorized violence.
Despite this promising premise, The Card Counter falls short in the tension, unpredictability, and structure of Schrader’s previous films. Unlike Taxi Driver, the film seems to analyze its protagonist on a superficial level.
As a character, Tell seems to be defined by two things: his PTSD and his obsession with routine. Apart from a few scenes, these two traits never seem to manifest or put Tell in conflict with the outside world in any significant way. The antisocial and violent traits of Schrader’s previous characters provided memorable scenes that have become ingrained in Hollywood mythos; so much so that Tell (despite Oscar Isaac’s performance) becomes completely unremarkable in comparison.
Likewise, the film’s antagonist is largely underdeveloped as well. Being a fan of Willem Dafoe, I was eager to see him as John Gordo—the sadistic soldier who got off scot-free. Unfortunately, Dafoe barely gets any screen time and never interacts with Isaac outside of a couple scenes.
The weak interplay of Tell and Gordo demonstrates the underlying problem with the film’s script. Tell’s relationships with the supporting cast had the potential to be interesting, but they’re undermined by a lack of development.
Despite the problems with the script, the overall story is still compelling. Where the film really suffers is in its visuals.
Seeing Martin Scorsese’s name on the poster, brings to mind the meticulous lighting and cinematography of such films as Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Casino. Scorsese’s hand must have never touched a camera during the production of this film because the lighting and cinematography of The Card Counter are painfully bland.
Casino and The Card Counter both set the majority of their runtime in casinos, but the atmosphere of both films differs completely. Casino’s palette is perfect with almost every slot machine, lamp, and even cigarette smoke contributing to how the film is lighted. In contrast, The Card Counter has all its casino scenes bathed in a “cool white” lighting.
The film gains no points in cinematography either. Establishing shots are filmed like stock footage, and overall, the camerawork gives viewers no sense of intimacy with the characters.
All these elements add up to make a film that doesn’t necessarily fail at anything but instead falls a little short in everything. All the pieces are in place for a great film: great actors, a great producer, and a great screenwriter. However, The Card Counter doesn’t feel like any of these people’s best work.
I really wanted to like The Card Counter. It’s a rare type of movie these days: one that focuses on quieter moments and internal conflict rather than action and spectacle. Despite that, it lacks the nuance and craft of both Schrader and Scorsese’s earlier work.
If this was the debut film of a rookie director, I’d certainly have more praise for it, but viewing it as the work of a Hollywood veteran warrants a harsher reception. It’s a film with great ideas and great talent behind it that ultimately feels unpolished and bland.
If you’re a fan of anyone involved in the film (Schrader, Scorsese, Isaac, etc.), it’s still worth a watch. However, those looking for a better cinematic experience should stick to Taxi Driver.