Paul Schrader Plays Close to the Vest
The Card Counter is the latest psychological drama from writer/director Paul Schrader. His previous effort, First Reformed from 2018 was produced on a similar budget and saw moderate success. Martin Scorsese teams up with Schrader once again, but this time as an executive producer. It seems ever since First Reformed, Schrader has taken to directing his own work and the results are riveting. In this new Schrader project, Oscar Isaac stars as the former veteran and convict with PTSD who copes by playing and counting cards. His character, William Tell, is approached by Cirk, another fellow veteran, who offers him a way to redeem his troubled past. As they travel the country together in their pursuit of monetary success and retribution, more is revealed about why exactly they must right the wrongs that they hardly feel can even be justified. Let's take a look at why specifically this film succeeds.
Oscar F*cking Isaac
The entire film is carried on the shoulders of Oscar hopeful Oscar Isaac who gives a stellar, yet understated performance. The film demands restraint from its lead as much of it is introspective and begs for pain to be felt and reckoned with beneath the surface. Oscar Isaac expertly portrays the troubled veteran grappling with the demons of his past and trying his level best to profoundly redeem his future. Isaac has two absolutely masterful scenes in this film which both require a heightened level of dynamism and tremendous emotional range, which he nails perfectly. The performance should be raved about for Oscar season, but it's more likely that this will come and go and disappear from the collective consciousness of the Academy. Isaac has been passed over for awards recognition in the past (Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina, and many others) and will hopefully quit being slept on by voters moving forward.
The cinematography of The Card Counter may come across low-key, but it's anything but underwhelming when viewing it in its entirety. Sure, the trailer gives us a preview of what's to come, but the camera tricks on display in the context of the greater story is masterful. There are unique shots and camera movements which not only look cool, but also enhance the storytelling at large. More specifically, there's a use of the fish-eye lens and the way the camera moves and the filter put on the sequence is nothing short of mesmerizing. It also adds to the surrealism and the heightened nature of the harrowing sequence. There is also a scene in which the lighting is used to create a dreamlike and ethereal quality to it. The transitions in this film also accent and complement the cinematography and gives us the fading perspective of our troubled protagonist. The cinematography here is not overly flashy, but there's a purpose to that and it's beautifully understated.
It's difficult to talk about a Paul Schrader film without talking about the screenplay. While at the risk of being in all too familiar territory, the plot details are different enough and always keeps us intrigued. The pacing of the script is brilliantly done as we're kept at arms length for most of it, but we're always interested. The card counting storyline is almost a smokescreen for what is truly boiling beneath the surface, character-wise. Schrader uses his signature slowburn buildup in the first two acts, which then crescendos into a fever pitch in the third act with a nice twist and a satisfying enough payoff by the end. The reveals throughout the script are perfectly placed and the plot, while it moves slow, carries us through with subtle intrigue with Isaac's portrayal of the character of William Tell. The character work at play is fascinating as it is scintillating. The screenplay, while not the greatest aspect of the film, is still a gripping and thoroughly intriguing work of art crafted wonderfully by Paul Schrader.
Paul Schrader delivers yet again with another intriguing character piece shrouded in mystery and profound guilt. Oscar Isaac delivers an outstanding and beautifully understated performance as the disturbed war veteran battling PTSD. The cinematography of the film is beautifully restrained and boasts some unique and almost never before seen techniques which dazzle and accent the film's brilliant storytelling. The screenplay of the film is terrific as always one can reasonably expect from legend Paul Schrader. The script is near perfectly placed and structures brilliantly well timed reveals throughout its calculated plot. All in all, the film works on very nearly every level, but the film leaves a little more to be desired upon its conclusion. All these excellent setups with underwhelming payoff by the end. The film is still well worth seeing despite it not entirely sticking the landing.
The Card Counter is a Focus Features film and is available only in theaters in a limited theatrical release.