Judging by what we know have become the tropes of the contemporary film industry, one would be inclined to believe two things: 1. a story that is already worn out has nothing more to say and; 2. assuming it still could have something to say, it would have to be done through the eyes of someone young and fresh. Luckily for the contemporary film industry, Paul Schrader doesn’t give a damn about the tired tropes.
In The Card Counter, the legendary American writer/director, supported by an always extraordinary Oscar Isaac, brings a tale of regret and trauma caused by systemic violence, as seen through the eyes of a former soldier. What would have been nothing more than a pretentious attempt at social critique in the hands of a less experienced and knowledgeable author, we have instead a fully captivating yet meditative piece on individual and collective freedom – and its costs.
“I never imagined myself as someone suited to incarceration,” is the first line of the film, quietly delivered as a voiceover of Isaac’s William Tell (not quite the character’s name, but the one he prefers). We find the protagonist in prison, dealing with his inner turmoil through an intense and relieving routine of diary keeping – and learning to count cards.
The scenery is almost too suitable for a Schrader film: a broken and disenchanted, likely despicable man, seeking salvation in all the wrong places. It is a small miracle Schrader hasn’t already made a film about a poker player, exploring his and society’s depravity in the underbelly of America’s most dejected confines, rooms without windows in which time stands still. And yet, this film is as much about poker as Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) is about Facebook – the cards are a mere tool for the people to hide from themselves but, most importantly, for the house to win. This lesson should not be forgotten, as Schrader’s “house” keeps expanding all the way to the end.
Tell has been sentenced to ten years in prison for participating in the atrocities committed by the U.S. army in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib. This would be enough to get the audience to despise the character, but we’re instantly made to reconsider through Tell’s desire for absolution and insistence on having been groomed into committing crimes by his older, abusive superiors. He was a torturer, yes, which he doesn’t deny and pays for. What we’re to do with the ones who orchestrated and participated in the horrors – and never saw any public condemnation but merely became expensive consultants to the American regime – is the real question here.
The years in prison have hardened Tell (or was he always that way?). The only window through which we can peer into his soul is his diary, wherein he lays his thoughts bare and lets us in just a bit while offering plenty of blackjack and poker tips for laypeople to marvel at.
The voiceover narrative technique has been seen before in Schrader’s films, most notably in 1976’s Taxi Driver, and serves everyone well, as it’s the only open insight into Tell’s thinking and morality. Otherwise, the taciturn man is a mystery; reticent and mentally withdrawn, he spends his days frequenting casinos and winning small, deliberately, in low-key tournaments. He is devoid of irony and doesn’t trade in banal fill-ins, which is hugely refreshing, but Tell still remains a black box throughout. By deliberately detaching Tell from the viewers, Schrader remains free to focus on the bigger picture and finds plenty to show along the way.
After Tell is released from prison, he finds himself roaming small-town America, winning “as much as the house will allow him” in minuscule blackjack tournaments. The little spare time he isn’t playing or practicing, he spends in motel rooms he makes sterile by wrapping up every piece of furniture in white sheets. Indistinguishable from one another, these rooms are made to emulate the properties of casinos, in which Tell and so many others hide from the passage of time and the control they have lost over their lives. Unlike most, though, Tell never forgets this and purposely leans into the play, biding his time until he finds a way to be absolved of his crimes.
A fundamentally solitary man, he keeps to himself until a hurricane of a woman, La Linda, storms through his little world and offers to front him for the big leagues. Played with delicious crassness by Tiffany Haddish, La Linda is a stable-runner, which is poker lingo for people who match promising players with sponsors from the shadows. “They will stake you on my word only,” she coos at a suspicious Tell, who’s taken aback by her affable, almost kind demeanor.
And just when you think the film will revolve around Tell’s attempt at a pot somewhere in Las Vegas, everything changes when he visits an intelligence conference at which one Major John Gordo (a brief, but effective Willem Defoe) gives a speech on improved interrogation techniques. Gordo is revered by the audience for his work as a top independent government contractor.
Gordo, we instantly know, had something to do with Tell’s past and his sentencing – and Tell isn’t the only one interested in finding this man. A wide-eyed college dropout Cirk (Tye Sheridan) forces Tell into a conversation where Cirk tells him about a revenge plan he has for Gordo – the commander’s actions in Abu Ghraib led Cirk’s abusive father to commit suicide. Tell doesn’t respond favorably to Cirk’s ramblings, but in this “good kid” he sees a singular opportunity to absolve himself of misdeeds, by helping get Cirk back on the right path.
The tragedy of the premise is already obvious, and deliberately so: Gordo is a reprehensible criminal deserving of the strictest punishment, and yet, not only is he not punished, but he remains highly regarded by the US military and government. In fact, his fate rings true to real-life events of the Abu Ghraib trials. In the end, the majority of those convicted were low-ranking soldiers seen in photos with the prisoners, while their superiors, undoubtedly the orchestrators and abettors of the crimes, remained free and well paid by the regime.
Schrader, a master of sordid morality, turns the aim toward the audience here, as we want to see Gordo pay, yet we still root for Tell to save Cirk from becoming a murderer and himself from a lifetime of regret. As with the characters’, the audience wants to see Gordo suffer and we ant those under his command find redemption. But the duality eats at everyone.
Through completely muted, stripped-down direction, Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan – who already worked together on First Reformed (2017) – remain in absolute control. Their bare-bones staging of the scenery continuously reminds us that these destinies can be anyone’s, that they could unfold anywhere and anyhow. Whereas Taxi Driver and American Gigolo (1980) owe much of their plot to their New York and Los Angeles settings, The Card Counter is wholly placeless, the whereabouts of its characters irrelevant.
Surprisingly, there is plenty of humor to be found in the bleak satirization of poker players, many of whom bear nicknames such as “Minnesota Fats” and “Clickity Dick” (a personal favorite), but the tragedy is realized the moment you realize that these folks could be anyone. One player, in particular, is a cypher supreme. He goes by the nickname “USA”, he waves the American flag and is followed by hordes of belligerent fans, obnoxiously pumping his fists and groaning every time he wins. It is no coincidence that this repulsive caricature is Tell’s biggest threat at each tournament; in order to take the pot, he’d have to beat the USA.
Much of the 112-minute film develops in unexpected ways, zeroing in on Tell’s psyche while spreading out the doom around him. There are deeply disturbing first-person long takes of the torture in Abu Ghraib that hold nothing back, as well as tender attempts at redemption through Tell’s intimacy with La Linda. The contrasts are conspicuously made to be tormenting, as we are reminded time and time again that (re)gaining an individual’s humanity means little when the whole society is rotten to its core.
To reveal any more plot points would be to spoil the viewing, but those familiar with Schrader’s opus can already infer plenty from the deliberately brazen clues. William Tell’s name, for but one example, is a sarcastic omen.
While Isaac’s marvelous performance keeps us in the dark about most aspects of his motivation, historical determinism – potentially even fatalism – is heavily hinted at, revealing Schrader once again as an unapologetically cynical, yet superbly engrossing filmmaker. By the time the bitter end arrives, we know what we’ve already suspected: you can’t beat the USA.