Film review: Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter” is a bad beat

In poker, a “bad beat” is when a player has cards that appear to be promising but loses nonetheless. 

Writer-director Paul Schrader returns to the big screen with a highly-anticipated drama featuring Oscar Isaac.

One of the more popular releases premiering in theaters this year is “The Card Counter.” This is Schrader’s return to the screen after 2017’s “First Reformed,” one of the greatest films of the 2010s, and maybe even the 21st century. An executive producer on the project is longtime friend Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” to name a few collaborations).

The story, in classic Schrader fashion, is not a complicated one. William Tell (Isaac) emerges from his duty in the Iraq War as both the villain and a victim, as he witnesses various torturous “heightened interrogation techniques” to detainees. After spending nearly a decade in prison, he embarks on a ritualistic neverending poker tour, participating in relatively low-stakes games while obviously not interested in racking up a fortune.

Along for the ride are La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a familiar face in the gambling world and Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a timid young man with a grudge against Tell’s military superiors.

There were a lot of talented individuals involved in “The Card Counter” in one way or another, but the film falls just short of a winning hand.

The first two acts take their time building up Tell’s motives, and there’s no real way of predicting where the story is going next… unless you’ve seen other Schrader titles.

When the horrors of which Tell was complacent in Iraq (which is barely shown in the film) start to sink in, the empathy for the main character begins to wither. It’s obvious Tell is further punishing himself, but once his backstory is established, the character doesn’t go anywhere.

“The Card Counter” doesn’t hammer down any of its ideas. It wasn’t really a card counting movie, a poker movie or a psychological movie. At a remarkable sub-two-hour runtime, a lot of the conversations feel like they’re repeating themselves. The first half establishes how moody the film is, but doesn’t leave much for the second.

Isaac couldn’t have played the title character much better, but the other two main characters offer nothing to “The Card Counter.” Isaac delivers good noir-esque voiceover narration and stone-faced apathy throughout, but the delivery between Haddish and Sheridan is clunky and repetitive, respectively.

Schrader’s “The Card Counter” is filed under “2021 letdowns,” but don’t hold it against him. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t watch any of his Scorsese-directed films, or “First Reformed.”

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