REVIEW: ‘The Card Counter’ is Tonal Confusion

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the card counter - But Why Tho

There aren’t many films like The Card Counter. Starting in prison, the story winds around itself through poker tables, military torture, revenge, a little sex, and a lot of obsession all spearheaded by the protagonist William Tell (Oscar Isaac). Directed and written by Paul SchraderThe Card Counter stars Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe, Bobby C. King, and Alexander Babara.

While it’s hard to say that the film has one single focus, given its whiplash narrative, for the most part the story follows William Tell, a gambler who taught himself how to count cards during an eight-year stint in military prison. In an attempt to avoid the attention of, well, anyone, Tell’s gambling philosophy is to bet small and win modestly. But even as a frequent casino player, his idiosyncrasies keep him from staying in casino hotels, instead opting to hop from motel to motel where he creates a nearly sterile environment for him and his small amount of belongings. One day he meets La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a stable manager looking for more gamblers to aid her investors in making big money. Somehow, through flashbacks that are not only disorienting from a narrative sense but also from a visual one, we see Tell’s past life as a soldier tried and convicted for his role in—checks notes—Abu Ghraib.

From this point on the film takes on two stories. One is about getting revenge on a fellow soldier and commanding officer who ruined Tell’s life and the life of a young man who finds him in Atlantic City. The other shows what happens when Tell decides to join La Linda’s stable and ultimately romance her along the way. The two winding stories eventually lead Tell back to where he started and, well, left me asking what just happened. In fact, the gambling stable plot against the graphic abuse shown in Abu Ghraib is awkward at best and done only for shock at worst, leading to a completely frustrating watch.

There is a total tonal confusion that runs through The Card Counter making it feel like two or even three films mashed into one. Through the changing focus points of the story, we hear Oscar Isaac’s voice narrating the card games, the rules, and all of it is done in a deadpan voice that somehow has none of the passion or strength that Isaac is known for in his roles. Outside of the narration, his work as William is frustrating. In some moments his sway between intensity and disassociation lands, but that’s not always the case. That said, none of the actors surrounding him seem to meet his performance. In fact, despite the shifts in tone, Isaac delivers a sound performance. The way he overshadows every other actor, except for Willem Dafoe, of course, creates another weakness in the film.

The Card Counter is honestly a mess filled with potential but with plotlines pieced together like a square peg in a round hole. Even Oscar Isaac delivering material for the thirstiest of Twitter accounts couldn’t make this film worth the watch.

The Card Counter is available now on VOD. 


The Card Counter
  • 3/10
    Rating - 3/10
3/10

TL;DR

The Card Counter is honestly a mess filled with potential but with plotlines pieced together like a square peg in a round hole. Even Oscar Isaac delivering material for the thirstiest of Twitter accounts couldn’t make this film worth the watch.

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