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Review: “The Card Counter” plays a poor hand well

By Matthew Royer, Political News Editor

Oscar Isaac stars in what can be characterized as a redux of director Paul Schrader’s classics.

Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish star in 2021's "The Card Counter." (Photo Courtesy of Focus Features)

20 years ago the United States was attacked, and what followed was a decades-long war that physically and mentally damaged those carrying out heinous acts on behalf of their government. This is one of those stories.

Producer Martin Scorcese and Director Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter” follows William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a veteran of the War on Terror, as he travels the poker circuit across the Eastern United States. Tell battles his demons as he moves, as reminders of his life in prison and post-traumatic stress from the war. Enjoying the repetition poker gives him, Tell takes Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a son of one of his war buddies under his wing, as well as La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a financial backer for his poker-related escapades. What follows is a journey of revenge, redemption and grief as Tell and Cirk clash with related enemies from the war, both physical and in their heads.

While similar to Schrader’s prior films 1976’s “Taxi Driver” and 2017’s “First Reformed,” which tackle the concept of a man consumed by their craft until they cannot continue anymore, his 2021 version of the story imaginatively uses inner-dialogue to portray Tell’s story. As the viewer, when Tell discovers something himself, so does the audience.

Isaac gives a powerful performance, showing how war can damage a soul psychologically. This is best seen with subtle movements Isaac’s character Tell gives throughout the film. The veteran covers his own DNA, constantly studies others and shows his struggle with commitment, whether with people or even his own hobbies, playing into the life he used to lead.

Haddish and Sheridan both give solid supporting performances, portraying their respective character’s ambitions flawlessly. Haddish, in particular, makes the transition from comedy to drama without a hitch.

Moviegoers might go into the theater thinking they are going to get a film about literally “counting cards” or poker, but instead receive a gritty character study that allows for many questions to be asked about the human condition. In fact, much of the story was left out of the promo material, leaving a new experience for the audience as they pay the admission and sit down for a two-hour escape from their everyday lives.

While the intentions are understood, the score of the film, put together by Robert Levon Been, feels out of place and distracts the viewer with its oddly timed sounds and lyric-filled music. If a more traditional score was used by Schrader, the film would have been more coherent during pivotal moments.

Due to its plot structure and themes of recent wars, “The Card Counter” is not for everybody, but for those intrigued, the film is a triumph for film in 2021. A sure bet for awards season starting in just a few months.

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