As much as he is a legend to the “new Hollywood” generation of the 1970s — especially as a screenwriter — Paul Schrader can be the definition of hit-or-miss when he’s also directing.
When the trailer for his new movie, The Card Counter dropped online last month, I figured this might be another in his “miss” pile. Especially since the name of Schrader’s former collaborator, Martin Scorsese, is all over the posters and TV spots as an executive producer. But to my surprise, the new movie actually has a lot of quality elements to it.
After spending nearly a decade in military prison, a reformed man now going by “William Tell” (Oscar Isaac) makes a living gambling and counting cards all over the United States. He generally does well as he bets modestly so as not to lose too much money.
His professional life gets a boost when a charismatic woman in the gambling world, LaLinda (Tiffany Haddish), wants to take him on as a client for her “stable” of gamblers that she backs. At the same time, a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) becomes convinced he and William have a secret connection to each other. Willem Dafoe makes an appearance as William’s former superior with a dark past.
Schrader will always have his place in film history if only for writing the screenplays to Scorsese’s classics Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). But I have to say, when it comes to modern efforts from both filmmakers in their later careers, I might actually prefer Schrader these days, even with the inconsistencies.
The Card Counter has a simple, unexciting premise, but plenty to offer with direction and acting. Isaac is a natural in the lead role as the aloof, mysterious vagabond, and Sheridan proves that he’s much more comfortable and fits in better in small-budget indies rather than blockbusters.
The biggest, pleasant shock in the movie is Haddish’s presence and performance. Based on that poor trailer, I thought the actress was going to be the most out-of-place aspect of The Card Counter. But in reality, she really proves her range and is capable of more than amusing, goofy comedies.
Along with a moody and eerily appropriate music score by Robert Levon Been, The Card Counter is an appropriately atmospheric and chilling drama to begin the autumn movie season.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.