Somewhere inside The Card Counter is a great idea for a gambling movie and a great idea for a military revenge thriller. Paul Schrader's mistake was combining them into one narrative. The result is something that doesn't quite work either way. Despite a strong performance from Oscar Isaac, there's something just too tame about The Card Counter that keeps it on the ground. And that's a damn shame, because there's a lot of potential here. Also, there's nowhere near enough Willem Dafoe for him to be considered the film's villain. In the words of Frasier Crane, "if less is more, then think how much more more will be."
Bill (Isaac) is a former army interrogator who recently finished a ten year prison sentence. In prison, he learned how to count cards, and he uses that skill to win moderately sized pots at blackjack tables in casinos across the country. He meets poker enthusiast La Linda (Haddish), who convinces him to join a high stakes tournament with a rich backer. Also, he runs into Cirk (Sheridan), an angry teen who wants to capture and torture the torturer (Dafoe) who drove his father to suicide. Bill encourges both storylines, but they never really converge in any way that makes sense. Mostly, we're left with an abrupt ending.
Paul Schrader has always been a filmmaker who's explored man's morality when faced with a monstrous society. His work with Scorsese reflects this better than most. While Schrader continues to explore this in The Card Counter, the execution leaves a bit to be desired. Still, the performances and the score are fantastic.