by Charlotte Harrison
When it comes to film writing, few things are as nerve-wracking or imposter syndrome inducing as preparing to write a negative review of a film that has been loudly lauded and is clearly deeply beloved by others. It got to the point where I even debated going to see the film again before writing this review, as I so desperately wanted to see what they saw in this film. But my body and mind’s instant rejection of the very notion of a rewatch reinforced what I knew and had tried to deny.
I really disliked this film and am fully in the camp of not getting it. The 112 minutes of watching it felt like a purgatorial slog, desperately willing for the end – or, at the very least, something to happen. Having really appreciated writer-director Paul Schrader most recent work, First Reformed (2017), I thought I’d be safe. Yet I found The Card Counter’s latest take on the ‘damaged talented loner male drifting on the outskirts of society, attempting to maintain a form of order to prevent acknowledgement hopeless absence of purposefulness’ interminable.
Oscar Issac’s protagonist hides behind his pseudonym of William Tell, travelling from one casino to another making enough to get by. Having spent years in military prison, and years prior to that working in Abu Ghrahib as a complicit enforcer of enhanced interrogation techniques, he lives the life of a motel nomad. He only has two bags of belongings, one of which contains plain sheets to cover all the furniture after removing all décor. Soon his gambling prowess brings him to the attention of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), an acquaintance from the gambling world who offers him the opportunity for investment and higher stakes, Cirk (Tye Sheridan) the son of a fellow soldier.
The Card Counter is being billed as a ‘revenge thriller’, but this should come with some small print. Refusing the high-paced adrenaline oft associated with the genre; it’s an intentionally slow burn, to the point of frustration or tedium for some. Littered with metaphor and symbolism that requires decoding, a stubborn refusal to provide answers; which results in inaccessible and unidentifiable meaning and purpose. Whilst the film’s visual language is beautiful, Alexander Dynan frequently replicates its central character’s claustrophobia to stunning effect, yet the torture sequences intrude with their baffling shooting style. This is compounded by dialogue which feels leaden, so weighted by subtext it’s no longer dialogue but, instead, pseudo-profundity spoken by characters at each other.
Issca’s performance is astonishing, haunting in its dead-eyed sociopathy. Every gesture, mannerism and utterance so bitterly captivating, an enigma we wish to solve. His self-appointed moniker refers to the legend of a man known for heroism & freedom, fighting against tyrants – yet this feels initially imperceptible in his behaviours. The performances of his supporting cast are far less successful. Tye Sheridan’s Cirk seems desperately underwritten, a pastiche of how a lost young man would speak and behave. His performance is one-note and lacking in depth, beyond his single-minded motivation. Tiffany Haddish seems ill-equipped for the role of La Linda, to the point of appearing uncomfortable as she unconvincingly delivers flip quips and brooding monologues.
All in all, The Card Counter is a bleak and self-serious experience. Clearly made with the best of intentions, an introspective exposing of hypermasculinity, it feels inward-facing to the point of inaccessibility.
The Card Counter is out in cinemas now.