The Card Counter Movie Review
Paul Schrader is an excellent writer. It’s his directing ability that holds him back. Even still, there is an appeal to the raw, stripped-down approach he takes, even if it makes you feel like there is a better, more powerful movie lost somewhere in a waste bin in his basement. Some find Schrader’s style enthralling, convincingly excellent (look at the overblown acclaim for First Reformed). Others, like me, wonder if The Card Counter, an at times enthralling if ultimately emotionally distant drama-thriller, could have been one of the most explosive films of the year in the hands of a different filmmaker.
I didn’t intend to begin this review so negatively, because The Card Counter, a movie I purposefully skipped when it was in theaters because nothing about it sounded particularly compelling, is a surprisingly good viewing experience. Oscar Isaac is excellent as a psychologically muted poker player who befriends a young man looking for answers, and revenge. Isaac, who relives the sins of his past as an interrogator and torturer at a military prison for suspected terrorists, is a blank slate, a man not without pleasantries but without real purpose in life.
His flashbacks, filmed in captivating style as if you’re suffering through a fever dream you can’t escape, are brutal, mesmerizing, and stand as a stark contrast to the seemingly mundanity of the modern-day scenes. Contradicting my first paragraph, these moments and their harsh abrasiveness, represent Schrader at his finest.
Yet the muting factor of the entire film, for a long while a perk, levels its vengeance in the final act. As dark and disturbing as the film’s final stretch is, Schrader’s willingness to hold his audience as far away from his characters for as long as possible ultimately does him in. In its final moments, when The Card Counter should slide its blade in between your ribs and twists, its end game feels like an emotional pinprick.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.