“The Card Counter”
Metacritic (6/10), Rotten Tomatoes (***)
There’s no mistaking a film made by writer-director Paul Schrader. The signature look, feel, mood and subject matter of his pictures are easy to spot, readily characterizing the singular style of this veteran filmmaker. The problem with that, however, is that, over time, his movies have increasingly begun to run together – easily distinguishable collectively but less so individually, especially as the filmmaker’s output has aggregated over several decades. And that’s the primary issue with this offering, one whose ambiance, themes and troubled protagonist have all been seen before in many of his previous works, despite a change of venue here compared to prior releases. As a storyteller who generally delves into the darker side of life, Schrader does so again here with this tale of a former special forces intelligence officer who is prosecuted and imprisoned for war crimes committed during intensely inhumane interrogations. During his 8-year incarceration, with plenty of time on his hands, he learns how to become an expert gambler/card counter, a skill that he parlays into a lucrative lifestyle upon his release. But the enigmatic loner is haunted by his past, particularly when he meets the son of a deceased colleague bent on getting revenge against a superior whom he believes was responsible for his father’s death, a plan the high-stakes card shark tries to discourage. What’s odd here, though, is the narrative’s pervasive ambiguity, which initially keeps viewers engaged but tends to grow tiresome as the story progresses and resolution remains elusive. This tendency clearly shows that there’s a big difference between cultivating suspense and remaining perpetually and inexplicably cryptic, particularly when it comes to discerning the characters’ (and even the picture’s) motivations. Except for occasional voiceover hints that are dangled before viewers, the intents driving the protagonist remain largely obscured with a pronounced lack of satisfactory resolution. That’s unfortunate given the fine lead performance of Oscar Isaac, as well as the film’s superb stylish cinematography (unexpected for subject matter that wouldn’t seem likely to lend itself to such treatment) and unusual location settings. The production works reasonably well as a character study, but, as a thriller/revenge tale, “The Card Counter” comes up decidedly short. Perhaps that’s due to the director having over-mined the material he draws from as a screenwriter and filmmaker. Or perhaps it’s a case of not being able to adequately define and express what he wants to say. In either case, however, this is one bet worth hedging given the underwhelming hand that the director is trying to play with.