The writers and film lovers here at Full Circle Cinema know that opinions on films are divisive and can get pretty argumentative. But to encourage friendly and lively debate, we have Full Circle Showdown. This series involves an in-depth discussion and collaborative review from two writers who have different opinions and ways of seeing films. The topic this time around is The Card Counter, the newest film from legendary writer-director Paul Schrader, best known for his work on films such as Taxi Driver and, more recently, First Reformed.
Review #1: Jacob Mauceri (Critic)
Being a movie lover for all of my life it goes without saying that I have a deep love for the works of Paul Schrader. Movies such as Taxi Driver, Mishima, and First Reformed are hallmarks of a career that is delicately crafted yet varying in subject. Schrader is enigmatic in that each movie feels like a completely new dish. Now, in 2021, he has released a movie that harkens back to what is arguably his most influential work, Taxi Driver. In 1976, Taxi Driver was like the invention of the beef wellington. Forty-five years later, in 2021, we are re-introduced to the same beef wellington that we saw in 1976 in the form of The Card Counter.
When you break it down, piece by piece, there is still a handful of good amongst the bad. Oscar Isaac continues to show that he is a force to reckon with. Anytime he is on screen, he rings out every bit of your attention. Regardless of my thoughts on The Card Counter, Oscar Isaac has never felt so confident nor has he felt so present in a movie. Although I don’t believe Tiffany Haddish really performed to her strengths in The Kitchen, she was shining in The Card Counter. My gripes with her performance only originate from the script and her direction. To be completely honest, if Haddish decided she would rather go in a serious direction I’d be a major supporter in it.
Once you unravel the pockets of good, all that remains is a molded, disgusting husk of a movie. Tye Sheridan is a great actor, but his character’s presence alone induced annoyance and frustration. I understood the role of the character, but there has to be a fine line of care. When we get to the end of the movie, I personally didn’t care what had happened to him. Oh, he made a dumb decision? Oh well!
The dialogue in this is some of the most bizarre I’ve heard. There were multiple instances throughout the movie where a character would say something and follow it up with essentially the same thing they had just said but reworded. I know that First Reformed was dry and the delivery of most things was flat. That doesn’t mean that style is universal.
This part dives into my most subjective reasoning as to why I disliked this movie. When you call a movie The Card Counter, you would expect something that would dive into the nitty-gritty of it. Something with a little more style. But there was no real delivery on this card counter idea. It was just a way to explain why Oscar Isaac’s character is so good at poker. We go from “I count cards” to boring montages of a large poker tournament narrowing down to just Isaac and a few characters.
I don’t believe there was a clear idea as to where Haddish’s character would go next. An attempt at trying to create this romantic air between Haddish and Isaac was made. Sadly, no chemistry was felt and the product of this was a sex scene that was completely unnecessary and felt forced. Haddish just felt like an object in this movie. If Haddish had more to work with, I imagine the direction and feel of this movie could have improved significantly.
Lastly, the plot. It feels as if there are two movies happening at the same time. We have the casino hustler movie and a movie about regression. Neither of which intertwine into something great. While one movie was picking up, the other was rearing its ugly head and taking up all of the space in the room. Without the balance the entire movie just felt lost in itself.
Every part of me wanted to like this, but I really couldn’t. The Card Counter is a movie that never quite finds it footing. Although I had my gripes with The Card Counter, it is entirely possible you’ll come out with a different prospect of it. Go watch this and create your own thoughts on it!
Review #2: James Preston Poole (Lead Critic)
Paul Schrader is nothing if not a cultural disruptor. In his brash storytelling and the projects he chooses to take on, he is directly confrontational to the audience. So when the time came to follow up First Reformed, a film many (myself included) to be one of his very finest works, why would we have expected anything less prickly than The Card Counter?
If there is one constant other than pushing its audience’s buttons in Schrader’s work, it’s his signature protagonist. A withdrawn, misanthropic loner takes the stage once more, this time brought to uncomfortable life by Oscar Isaac. Isaac’s William Tell is the titular card counter, a quiet man who spends his days in casinos around the country methodically winning as much as he can. However, deep inside of him is the knowledge of the inhumane torture he conducted in the Abu Gharib prison in Iraq during his military time.
For all the ways William Tell naturally repels the observer, Isaac is magnetic. He makes this singular weirdo and the ways he interacts with the world a case study into a wounded soul. This is aided in no small part by Schrader’s assured direction. One can surmise that Tell’s time spent in prison, as prisoner and captor, has nurtured an obsessive compulsion to remain in the sterile indoors. And sterile the film around him is built.
Schrader practically gives The Card Counter the feel of a VOD film. There’s little to no color correction, camera movements are far from unique, it’s bordering on amateurish. That is, if it weren’t entirely intentional. This completely minimalist way of filmmaking puts you right in the seat of Tell: a perspective that’s frankly harrowing to be in. Just as film is but an imitation of the real world, so is Tell’s existence an imitation of living.
His plastic life resembles a prison of his own devising. His attempts to interact with other human beings – a would-be apprentice of sorts in Tye Sheridan’s character and what is supposed to resemble a romance with Tiffany Haddish’s character – appear as facsimiles of the real thing. Or are they? It’s hard to tell, and that’s what makes The Card Counter an aggravatingly interesting watch all the way through.
It’s a character study through and through. Of someone who is constantly threatening to go full tilt, to try as aggressively as possible to reclaim a life they may have permanently lost. The idea of oneself going full tilt is uncomfortable, and so The Card Counter is uncomfortable. Maybe that isn’t something most want to watch. Maybe the film could’ve benefitted by being a more conventional play on that idea. But at that point, it wouldn’t be Paul Schrader. And I certainly wouldn’t have this much to say about it.
The Card Counter is certainly a Paul Schrader film, alright. Both critics agree that Oscar Isaac’s performance is a winner, but the actual merit of it as a cohesive story serves as a point of contention. Either way, Full Circle recommends watching it and making up your own mind.
Combined Rating: 6/10
The Card Counter is now in theaters.