Plot: What’s it about?
It’s odd how some movies seem to resonate with me and some for some pretty obscure reasons. Case in point is The Card Counter. My wife and I were in Portland, Maine on vacation when walking back to our hotel from dinner. We passed a movie theater that had, you guessed it, The Card Counter playing. Being someone who’s not averse to gambling, I was intrigued. Not intrigued enough to go see it, but when you run a site that garners you free movies – sometimes it’s worth the wait. And when the disc finally arrived, I did a little research on the film. Paul Schrader wrote and directed it. That might not resonate with some readers, but this is the man who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. We’re dealing with the man who created Travis Bickle. More recently Schrader wrote and directed First Reformed which featured one of Ethan Hawke’s better performances. The bottom line is that all the pieces are in place. If films about protagonists with some emotional baggage are your thing, you’re in a for a treat.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) has spent nearly the last decade in Leavenworth. He was arrested for his part in torturing some detainees at Abu Gharaib. During his stay, he learned to count cards and now travels to casinos winning just enough to not raise an eyebrow. He runs into an old acquaintance, La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), she runs a “stable” to help professional gamblers find sponsorship. Her aim is to sign him up, but William prefers the life he’s made for himself. As fate would have it, he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man who’s on a mission of revenge against a security specialist named Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Gordo just so happened to be Tell’s commanding officer. William leans that Cirk is in debt and intends to help him out. He then takes the offer from La Linda and the die is cast.
There’s more, of course, but that lays it out. Oddly “card counting” is most associated with Blackjack, which is only briefly featured in the film. The majority of the gambling scenes cover poker. Watching this film I was reminded of a few of my favorites that seem to mirror the style and substance of this film. I’m speaking of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, John Dahl’s amazing Rounders and Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler. Those are three to check out if The Card Counter is your thing. Isaac is, of course, phenomenal in his role. I felt Tiffany Haddish was miscast, but it’s nice to see that she doesn’t have to be over the top in everything she’s in. And for fans of Willem Dafoe, don’t get too excited – he’s got maybe 8 minutes of screen time. Films like this are a slow burn. You either love them or you don’t. For fans of Schrader’s work, this is more of the same. The writing, acting and direction are all top notch and which makes this one well worth your time.
Video: How’s it look?
It’s not often that we see a modern-day film presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Don’t panic, those vertical black bars on the sides are supposed to be there. Upon further thought, however, I find that it’s a fitting way to present this film. I found that it gives the viewer a very claustrophobic feeling that somewhat describes the inner turmoil that Oscar Isaac’s character is experiencing. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. At any rate, the film looks divine. It’s not one that’ll showcase the entire color spectrum, to be sure. Most of the film takes places inside dimly-lit casinos, casino bars and hotel rooms with only a select few scenes outside. Still, this muted and earthy-toned palette manages to please visually.
Audio: How’s it sound?
The included DTS HD Master Audio mix isn’t one that will be remembered. Truthfully, I’ve heard movies that are 50 years old sound better than this. That’s not to say that this sounds bad, rather it’s just not an audio-intense film. This is about as dialogue-driven as films get with only a few scenes utilizing the surrounds. A great audio track can make or break a film and others use it as a crutch. Thankfully, this film doesn’t need to rely on such things as the words spoken are proof enough. It’s a muted, somewhat somber track, but it also fits with the theme of the film. I don’t see anyone having a problem with this.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- A High-Stakes World – Paul Schrader discusses developing his signature characters and how the world of poker provided the perfect metaphor for William Tell’s predicament. Features additional interviews with the film’s stars Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish as well as poker consultant, Joe Stapleton.
The Bottom Line
You’ll likely know in the first ten minutes if this one is for you or not. If so, you (like me) won’t want it to end. If not, you may be looking at your watch and rolling your eyes. The lack of any real supplements is rather disappointing, but the film looks great and sounds decent. This is worth checking out just to see one of our better actors in one of his better roles.