Published on September 6th, 2021 | by Craig Silliphant0
The Card Counter
Paul Schrader is back, with a brilliantly haunting character study about a war criminal turned poker player who can’t find redemption in The Card Counter.
We don’t think it’s true, but any of us could become a war criminal. We like to think we’d be better people in that moment, but given the usual set of circumstances that lead to these things, it’s just not true. Very few people avoid this fate when it is upon them. None of us are some miracle exception to the rule.
In Paul Schrader’s new film, The Card Counter, Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, a former military interrogator just released from prison, having taken the fall for the war crimes of his nation. He starts a new life that he understands well, winning poker games around the nation. Though it’s lonely sometimes, he even begins a blossoming friendship with his poker agent (a somewhat miscast Tiffany Haddish). But when a young man named Cirk (Ty Sheridan) comes to him with a plan for revenge against the architect of American torture (William Dafoe), William tries to steer the kid in the right direction while trying to put his past behind him.
Schrader is no amateur at staring long and hard into the souls of lonely, damaged men and The Card Counter continues to explore that territory. In this case, he’s looking at the idea of redemption for a man who knows he can never truly be redeemed for the things he did. All he can do is try to win some poker money and put time between himself and his crimes.
Some movies create a world with the hook of immersing yourself in a backdrop you aren’t usually privy to. The Card Counter does this two-fold as we are introduced to both the poker universe and the milieu of military interrogations. The nightmarish Abu Ghraib-esque scenes, shot with a fishbowl lens and punishing thrash music, meant to be torturous, not cathartic, are frighteningly effective. There’s also a good metaphor at the poker table about the house always winning — and a player called Mr. USA (who isn’t even American) that always, and obnoxiously, takes the first-place prize.
The film, however, doesn’t follow the clichés that many likeminded movies would; it doesn’t always go where you want it to go. But it does what it does with the extreme assurance of Schrader’s guiding hand. It’s a slow burn, moody and restrained, and likens back to the pacing and character development of great 70s cinema.
The Card Counter is a brilliant and fascinating character study that constantly subverts the thriller in its DNA. Even the ending is somewhat subdued compared to films like Taxi Driver or Schrader’s last film, the excellent First Reformed. In fact, it was almost frustrating that it didn’t explode, didn’t give us that release. But that’s the everyday of William Tell’s life; he is restrained, wants to move on, and is unwilling to give in to the passions of Cirk’s hate.
Part of me wishes the thriller hadn’t taken a back seat, but which part of me is that? The part that wants to see blood? The part that could become a war criminal? Who knows. Either way, as the chips fall, The Card Counter is a brilliant and subversive character study that feels like a comfortable return to familiar themes, but also like something wholly unique at the same time.