In a world that feels unendingly near apocalyptic, Paul Schrader re-emerges as the artist best situated to transmit stories about moral rot, personal sacrifice, and erotic salvation. With his 2017 film First Reformed—centered on a psychically struggling Calvinist priest, Toller (Ethan Hawke), who is tasked with counseling a suicidal young environmental activist (Philip Ettinger)—the veteran director (American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) and screenwriter (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) nabbed his first Oscar nomination for best screenplay. Now, he’s back with The Card Counter, an unflinching look at the guilt and self-annihilation experienced by a soldier who served jail time after committing disturbing abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
Fittingly for Schrader, the film is extremely dark and darkly funny with an undeniably Christian morality (and morbidity) at its core. Premiering at the Venice International Film Festival on September 2 with a U.S. theatrical release September 10, The Card Counter stars Oscar Isaac as that soldier, William Tell, who now frequents casinos throughout the country. He’s a small-time poker player who wins by counting cards, something he learned to do during his ten-year sentence. He’s a bizarre, quiet man, but with a lot to say: like First Reformed’s Toller, Tell keeps a meticulous diary from which much of the film is narrated via voiceover. The narrative device also recalls Taxi Driver’s use of the agitated inner musings of its troubled protagonist.
What we get from Tell’s diary entries is a sense of how the U.S. military displaces culpability onto its recruits, allowing the masterminds of war crimes to continue with impunity. Tell is remorseful, and openly admits the horrors of his involvement to a young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who seeks revenge for his own father’s suicide after the latter was dishonorably discharged post-Ghraib. Both are aware that torture was approved from the top and expanded by superiors on the ground. According to the film, the U.S. gets away with systemic corruption by identifying bad apples—only people like Tell and Cirk’s father, low-ranking soldiers, appeared in the horrifying photos captured at Abu Ghraib. And only the ones in the pictures were indicted—in real life, journalists and scholars have written about the scandal behind independent government contractors, many of whom were arguably in positions of authority at Abu Ghraib, and their practical immunity from the law.
Revenge, specifically on Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe)—who taught Tell and Cirk’s father everything they knew about torture—could be catharsis. But after seeing this young man’s potential for a future in sharp relief, Tell shifts instead towards idealism. What about giving this kid the life Tell himself can’t—could never—have?
Schrader’s desire to tell stories about people who have done or seen depraved things, and so punish themselves while redeeming others, seems pretty clearly derived from his own Calvinist upbringing, an extremely strict Protestant Christian sect that prohibits movies altogether. Schrader, as has been widely reported, didn’t see a film until he was 17. He might not have had the sentimental attachment to watching that most children develop after receiving a nearly constant stream of subliminal and overt messaging about innate human goodness by Disney and the like. Perhaps as a result, watching his films feels like being catapulted onto an uncanny terrain—it’s like life, only hyper-focused, pared down to essentials, cleared of hedging and distraction.
The Card Counter trades in both menacing and enveloping styles. It condemns, but not without offering salvation. Girls Trip actress Tiffany Haddish also stars as La Linda, a warm, charismatic recruiter who identifies poker players she thinks can win big, then connects them with investors who will fund their tournaments. La Linda and Tell are drawn to each other (there’s clearly a romantic spark that Tell avoids giving into), yet while she’s perceptive about his shady past, La Linda can’t quite make out what kind of person she’s dealing with.
Neither can we. Isaac gives what is perhaps his best ever performance here. It’s subtle—Schrader doesn’t offer him a bunch of flashy moments. Mostly, Tell has to talk; and as an emotionally inert man whose own inability to refuse orders or control rage in the past have sunk him to nearly unimaginable depths, Tell is not set up to win over an audience. We instead have to believe that, given his experiences, the character knows more about moral failure than we do, and has an idea of what to do about it. Beyond Schrader’s screenplay, Isaac plays this knowingness mostly in his eyes and with his walk. Every move Tell makes is tightly controlled, yet there’s still a shroud of unpredictability over him. We hear his thoughts, yet he’s opaque. Haddish and Sheridan, then, have the work of filling out an emotional landscape—from affection to alienation—and are up to the task.
Schrader has done a good job of giving his actors just enough. He doesn’t demand the overwrought dramatizations that are common in films that address the U.S. military’s abuses and government corruption. Instead, by locating most of the film’s action in casinos and motel and hotel rooms, The Card Counter brings the subtext of broken American lives to the fore. The casino—a wasteland of hope, addiction, and catharsis—is an apt arena to enact a moral plot of such magnitude. You’ll leave the film unable to stop thinking about its dimensions.
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