William Tell, expertly played by Oscar Isaac, is a master poker player. He knows all the rules, tricks and tips to win a game, and he openly shares these explanations to the audience through monologues played over his card games.
For a film that tries hard to artistically deliver a message on guilt and vengeance, it doesn't narratively make sense to spoon-feed viewers information about the game. Therefore, this narrative could've gone all in, but instead director and writer Paul Schrader continuously passes on a hit.
THE CARD COUNTER - Official Trailer [HD] - Only In Theaters September 10 www.youtube.com
"The Card Counter" tells the story of a violent ex-military interrogator turned gambler who is haunted by his past decisions during service. He blames his downfall on his superior named Gordo(Willem Dafoe) whom he meets again years after serving time in jail and taking the fall for him. Meanwhile a young man (Tye Sheridan) also has a bone to pick with Gordo named Cirk with a "C" (the movie ensures audiences don't forget it as his name becomes a long-running bothersome joke). When Tell and Cirk meet, Tell is faced with a dilemma of seeking revenge or continuing to live his new free life with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish).
The movie has Schrader's characteristic intensity and suspense that's akin to his earlier work like "Taxi Driver," whether or not it's appealing to all. There are times when Tell would cover his hotel furniture with white sheets while sinister-sounding music plays, and that keeps audiences guessing. But ultimately the suspense falls flat to unsatisfying results due to characters' actions.
Narratively, the film distracts the viewer from the ambience in multiple scenes. Why bother showing a casino employee sobbing at the bar and asking if she's OK when audiences never see her again? It's a waste of run time when it doesn't contribute anything to the plot.
Actors are more talented than this
Speaking of the screenplay, some lines are winners – others not so much. It's clear in films when actors work with the script in the best way they can, and this is certainly the case with Isaac, Haddish, Sheridan and Dafoe. They each have a standout scene that showcases their talent. But in one memorable scene isn't enough.
This is an extremely talented cast with plenty of astounding credits to their names, but their delivery and acting felt as clunky as a grade-school performance.
When the mystery isn't enough
Tell is a mysterious character, and Isaac plays it well. But viewers don't discover his direct motives and origin stories until halfway through the movie. By then, it's easy to disconnect with the focal point of the movie.
The cinematography choices also try to blur lines between what's fact and what's fiction. Whenever the film flashbacks to Tell's time as an interrogator, a 360-degree camera is used to show how distorted the memory is. Though the attempt is appreciated, it's so distracting to see the actors squished in the camera's lens.
"The Card Counter" could've been an interesting revenge thriller, but viewers are better off leaving the chips off the table.
"The Card Counter" premieres in theaters Friday, September 10.
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