The Case for The Card Counter's Tiffany Haddish as One of 2021's Best Performances | Features | Roger Ebert

2021-12-25 05:56:41 By : Ms. Tina Huang

The first time we see La Linda, the glamorous gambler in “The Card Counter” who runs a stable of professional poker players, she is sitting on the side-lines. Stylishly dressed, with large sunglasses and a sharp fringe covering most of her face, she sits with a straight back and look of expectation on her face. She doesn’t slink into the scene or make the sort of dramatic entrance one would imagine from this kind of character in this sort of narrative. Rather, what her intro reminded me of was a meme. You've probably seen the image of Tiffany "New York" Pollard from "Flavor of Love" sitting on a bed while wearing sunglasses and this highly relatable look of impatience. It’s the ideal gif to convey your feelings of irritation when you're forced to wait too long or are dealing with people you know will disappoint you. With La Linda, it's our first sign that she's not what you would potentially expect from such a character, and that her actress will not give the performance one would expect. 

Tiffany Haddish, a multi-award-winning comedian who stormed into the spotlight with her revelatory turn in "Girls Trip," has taken on more serious roles before "The Card Counter." Yet there was that inevitable narrative of the "funny person going dramatic" when it was announced that Paul Schrader had cast her alongside critical darlings Oscar Isaac and Willem Dafoe. Most of the reviews, even the more positive ones, don’t seem particularly enamored with Haddish’s performance, seeing her as lagging behind her more experienced co-stars as well as other comedic actors Schrader has directed to serious success, like Richard Pryor and Cedric the Entertainer. Negative write-ups assert that Haddish is an ill fit for the material, too warm a presence for a character seemingly written to be a classic femme in the vein of a Barbara Stanwyck or Gloria Grahame type. That, however, is the point, and it’s this oppositional quality that makes her turn so fascinating in "The Card Counter."

The traditional femme fatale is a wily figure, a seductive dame with subterfuge on her mind and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the thing she wants. She gets the best lines, the best costumes, and slinks through the shadows of noir. While there's been decades of academic criticism on the femme fatale and how she represents contemporary anxieties surrounding women and sex, it's hard to deny the allure, even when the portrayal veers into seriously problematic territory (consider how many of these women end up dead by the closing scene.) 

La Linda is, on an aesthetic level, a classic femme fatale with an eye firmly on her genre predecessors: her wardrobe is stunning and evidently expensive, clearly the best-dressed woman in every dingy casino she enters, and she never has a hair out of place. Haddish can strut into every room like she can buy out the place without breaking a sweat. She’s expensive but not flashy, as much a player in the game as the sullen players in hoodies or the showboating divas of the poker championships. 

Yet this is not a character of conniving force. La Linda’s objectives are relatively simple: find good card players for her roster, help them make a lot of money, and continue the cycle until she’s done with it. The characters with all the secrets are the men, from Isaac’s William Tell, a former Abu Ghraib torturer turned vagabond gambler, to Tye Sheridan’s Cirk, the troubled son of a former soldier who craves revenge above all else. Players put on personas, such as the hilariously brash Ukrainian champion who is forever accompanied by a cheer squad chanting, “USA! USA!” By comparison, La Linda is an open book, albeit one who keeps some key cards close to her chest. 

Haddish has talked in several interviews about having to quash her natural comedic instincts while working on "The Card Counter." Schrader even told IndieWire she “wasn’t very good” in rehearsals and that he "told her to go back and read every single line without emotion." La Linda obviously isn’t as bombastic a figure as Haddish’s most famous comedy creations are, but there’s still an appealing lightness to her that feels welcome amid the trauma and treason of the men. When she tells William, in an attempt to recruit her to her stable of supported players, that she’s “always looking for a thoroughbred,” there’s an obvious silliness to the quote that Haddish gives just the right amount of emphasis to. How can you not smile when saying something that cheesy? Haddish just has to. Plenty of actresses could sell that line straight but Haddish knows the ludicrousness of the proposal and doesn’t hide it. After all, she inhabits a very silly world.

Schrader, always the master of portraying the true depths of American sleaze, doesn’t shy away from showing the casino industry as a numbing and lifeless place. Every casino Tell attends is near-indistinguishable from the last. They all share the same drab carpeting, are windowless and lit only by LED screens and harsh artificial lamps, and are populated by miserable looking individuals, a mixture of chronic gambling addicts and elderly tourists. There’s not even the slightest sheen of glamour to be found, except, of course, with La Linda, who skates through these hallways with the giddy knowledge that she’s better than all of it. Haddish cracks jokes with other players, warm to them like a passing friend but still one who is always moving forward. 

Unlike Tell, La Linda isn’t tied to this world. She berates the boys for not having hobbies outside of the casino and mockingly recommends books as she high-fives Cirk and hugs him like a loveable auntie. She sips her drinks—always the most stylish of cocktails, no umbrellas in her Manhattans—with the cheekiness of flirtation, mouthing her straw with an open glance of invitation towards Isaac. The other players in the leagues seem to love her, even as they blank their fellow competitors. It’s her who takes Tell out on a date, holding his hand as they walk through a technicolor city of lights with far more life than the cold ones of the casinos. When Tell finally works up the nerve to kiss her, it's no sensual seduction: she’s wearing a t-shirt and smiles like a girl who can’t believe that she landed Oscar Isaac (a truly relatable moment!) This moment of truly healthy romance, a first for Schrader who is one of the most fascinatingly sex negative filmmakers working today, allows Haddish to revel in being the ultimate prize. When you land the hottest guy in the room, why wouldn’t you convey that pleasure? 

It is when she’s forced to stop, to step away from the game and all of its performativity, that we see true pain seep into Haddish’s aura of warmth. By the film’s end, Tell is back in prison, no doubt a lifer for his bloody crimes. He expects no visitors, but La Linda comes anyway. There's no smile, no quip to break the ice, no moment of joy. This isn’t a world she can laugh in the face of. It’s real in a way the casinos aren’t, and, in Haddish’s unexpected stillness, we see how ill-prepared she is for it. Instead, she raises her finger to the glass separating her from him and places it there, silently inviting him to follow. He does. To the end, even as hope disappears, La Linda provides a moment of something real. She’s not his savior (which in and of itself is decidedly un-femme fatale-esque), but she still brings him back into the light. 

Many critics wrote off Haddish’s work in "The Card Counter" as a tonal mismatch for the otherwise unrelenting bleakness of the story, but that stance misses the point of what she’s doing. Schrader is one of the true icons of depicting the depths of all-American sleaze and he’s always had an eye towards exposing its rank stupidity. Haddish is his vessel for peeling back the curtain and giving the audience permission to laugh, to roll their eyes, and to understand how frivolous this supposedly high-stakes world really is. She gives not so much a comedic performance as much as she acts as an inviting tour guide through the ludicrous realm that she calls home.