After the acclaim of director Paul Schrader’s last feature, First Reformed, many likely would bet that his next film would be a success, especially with Oscar Isaac as its leading man. Those individuals would have lost out on a lot of cash as The Card Counter is the first major flop at the Venice Film Festival.
The film follows William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a sullen Travis Bickle-type blackjack player with a dark military past. But when Cirk, (Tye Sheridan), a youngster with a mystery of his own comes into the fold, Tell has to confront the part of himself that has lied dormant for so long.
If you couldn’t tell from that brief description, Schrader goes full tilt here, pulling so heavily from Taxi Driver that The Card Counter feels like a spiritual remake. Unfortunately, unlike the classic Scorsese film, almost none of the material works here. The script is clunky, cliched, and peppered with anti-Asian sentiments. There were points during the screening where an audience of about 700 were chuckling about Oscar Isaac torturing someone because the lines Schrader crafted for the actor were so hamfisted.
However, that burden is not Isaac’s to bear. He channels the beautiful, mysterious loser persona popularized in the 70s beautifully. There’s a unbearably tense scene in a diner that could be an argument for Isaac being the next Robert De Niro. The issue is that Schrader crafts lines that are so blunt and unoriginal that it makes Isaac’s perfect delivery come off as comically morbid.
Both the gambling and military torture plots in The Card Counter work well enough on their own, but like a two and a seven in poker, they’re far too separate to come together successfully. It may have initially seemed like Schrader had a royal flush on his hands, but after seeing The Card Counter, it’s clear that the director was bluffing.
The Silver Lining
Given Schrader’s public affinity for poker and gambling in general, it’s no surprise that the casino scenes were some of the best in the film. The vivid colors of the slot machines juxtaposed with Isaac’s deadpan delivery of gambling terms worked in beautiful opposition. Had Schrader focused solely on a gambling narrative and kept up the mystery of Isaac’s character, The Card Counter could have been one of the better high stakes casino films since Molly’s Game.
The Card Counter is releasing in movie theaters nationwide September 10th.