I went in expecting a gambling movie but should have known better. The Card Player is a Paul Schrader film and thus is as much about counting cards as Taxi Driver is about driving taxis.
Indeed, the film shares many thematic elements with Schrader’s earlier script. Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, a skilled advantage gambler who limits his winnings to funding his modest lifestyle. Like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, he moves among swaths of people, but remains a detached spectator. Like Bickle, he’s haunted by wartime trauma, but while Bickle longed to connect, Tell longs to atone.
Tell sees his chance in wayward young man Cirk, played by Tye Sheridan. Tell fixates on steering the young man away from revenge, a catalyst akin to Bickle seeking to free Iris from prostitution. Here the film faltered for me. I understood why Tell wanted to save Cirk, but I couldn’t empathize, as neither Cirk’s character nor Sheridan’s performance compelled me.
This extends—to lesser degrees—to the entire cast. Tiffany Haddish plays another gambler and somewhat love-interest for Tell. She delivers many of her lines as if reading from cue cards. Willem Dafoe acquits himself best, but his role amounts to a cameo. Even Isaac struggles to convince in a part I’m confident he’s capable of executing. The whole reeks of a rushed production with limited takes.
So I’m disappointed. While I admire the thematic elements and the more somber, remorseful take on the Taxi Driver story, the execution proves wanting. Worse still, the film name checks two great films: The Hustler and The Cincinnati Kid. Either of which could stand for a modern reinterpretation. But, alas, if you must watch a film about a gambler rehabilitating a young man to atone for his past sins, watch Hard Eight instead.