Starring: Oscar Issac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, and Willem Dafoe.
Directed By: Paul Schrader
Where i Watched It: HBO MAX
English Audio Description Available?: Yes
Description Provided By: Media Access Group
Narrated By: Adrienne Barbeaux
The Plot: I mean, obviously this is a poker drama about a card counter, right? No. This is a story about a man (Issac), a former US soldier who worked at Guantanamo Bay, and under the direction and leadership of his superior (Dafoe), tortured the individuals kept there. When the human rights violations came to light, he ends up being one of the easy targets due to his low rank, while his superior makes it off scot free. So he gets jail time, and his boss goes on to make more money somewhere else. After serving his time, he is released from jail, and does start playing in a semi-pro Texas Hold ‘Em circuit where Haddish and Sheridan come into play, But the real story here is a revenge plot. He was just following orders, and doing what he was trained to do. Now it’s time to use those skills… for revenge.
What Works: Not much, to be honest. There are a few fleeting moments that Paul Schrader makes that make this film interesting, but for the most part it’s a mess. The strongest singular factor is seeing Tiffany Haddish do rather well in a serious role. She’s not here to crack jokes, and her ability to match the dark tone of the film and share her scenes opposite the always terrific Issac are noteworthy.
Aside from her performance, I can’t say that the film has bad acting. It’s just that the cast has been better in other projects. Schrader has been a better director in other projects. His message mostly gets muddled, but he occasionally makes a smart choice. There’s a scene toward the beginning of the film involving the placing of sheets over furniture that has a nice payoff. But overall, I’m not really here to recommend this title.
What Doesn’t Work: on some level, just about everything else. These actors have all been better in other projects before. For Oscar issac, this barely registers. He’s had such a solid career thus far, The Card Counter won’t crack his top 10 performances. This is a guy who knocks it out of the park every chance he gets. His scene chewing work as Apocalypse was actually more interesting. Tye Sheridan was better than Mud, and Willem Dafoe is barely in this, but is better in just about everything he’s ever done.
And for Paul Schrader, a complicated writer/director who has developed a following despite being inconsistent, this is a far cry from First Reformed, a terrific and compelling story that should have gotten Ethan Hawke a Best Actor nomination. This isn’t the Paul Schrader people got behind after he was fired from The Exorcist prequel, demanding so loudly that his cut of the film be released, that after a year of hearing how terrible Exorcist: The Beginning was, the studio released Dominion, and we realized the film still sucked.
The story is all over the place, trying to convince you of the great magic trick that it’s about poker, when it’s obviously not. Schrader barely cares about these sequences, and the disjointed nature of the storytelling, constantly leaping through time just makes that more evident. He knows he’d rather be anywhere else than stuck in a poker film, so we’re always getting filler that just messes with the final product.
In short, this film is all over the place, it’s far too long, extremely boring, and kind of a mess. It was so dull, I watched this at home where I have the God like power to pause, but I needed to get up twice while playing the movie, and neither time did I pause. I didn’t want to extend this experience any longer.
The Blind Perspective: There was one scene toward the end , mostly the very end, where a person is tortured obviously because of the screaming. I felt like it was on camera, as the film is rated R for graphic violence. However, the description didn’t really fill in that scene. Maybe the torture was deemed too much to describe, or maybe Schrader pulled away from it. I don’t know, but the silence was awkward while I felt like I was missing out on something happening visually.
Final Thoughts: I can’t in good conscience recommend this film, however even though this isn’t anyone’s best performance, it’s still got strong acting, perhaps this films only redeemable quality aside from a. Few choices made by Schrader. There are better films out there to watch.
Final Grade: C-