The Card Counter (2021)
Written & Directed by Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader’s filmmaking career has been a strange series of peaks and valleys, with movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as standouts. Since then, he’s made an eclectic filmography but with one constant in almost every picture: a tight focus on an intense male protagonist. I come from the camp that doesn’t see Schrader’s focus on this subject as an endorsement. In many instances, they are self-examinations and critiques, and in others, they seek to present a type of person society tries to look away from out of discomfort. Travis Bickle, for instance, isn’t meant to be a person we admire, but we are certainly expected to find some empathy for him. Schrader seems sincerely interested in the plight of war veterans and looking at crucial issues of our time. The Card Counter brings those two elements together.
“William Tell” (Oscar Isaac) is a gambler who taught himself card counting while in a military prison for eight years. He gets away with exercising this hated practice by betting small and walking away before the heat gets turned up too much, which has led to his modest existence living in budget motels and traveling across the country to casinos. He meets La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) during a stop, who runs an investment stable to back gamblers. Bill dodges her and crosses paths with Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man connected to the gambler. Cirk’s father served with Bill, and they both worked under the tutelage of Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Gordo was one of the people in charge at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and made his underlings practice sadistic torture methods on the captured Iraqis there. This is what sent Bill to prison and led to Cirk’s father killing himself. Cirk is drowning in debt, unable to move past his father’s suicide, which causes Bill to relent and agree to La Linda’s offer. His plan is to accrue so much money it can help Cirk begin to build a life that someone like Bill is resigned to never experiencing.
The Card Counter is an awkward film to get into at first, but it had utterly enraptured me by the end. This is mainly due to two key factors: Schrader’s direction and Oscar Isaac’s intense lead performance. First, Schrader frames most of his shots in a way that will likely be disconcerting to modern filmgoers. I noted the same thing while watching First Reformed years earlier. What I think is going on is that he is blocking and framing these shots in an older style of directing, but it ends up looking so odd with modern film technology. It certainly works, in my opinion, but when your brain isn’t quite used to it, this can be a hurdle to overcome. It reminded me a lot of how David Lynch shoots interior scenes.
Because most of the movie looks so “plain,” when Schrader suddenly switches gears, it jolts us out of our seats. I distinctly recall a monologue from Bill where the camera slowly pushes in from a distance across the casino floor that seized my attention. There’s also a mind-blowing scene where Bill and Linda walk through a park lit up with Christmas tree lights that leads to a drone shot. I could not figure out if what I was seeing was real or computer-generated. Then there are the flashbacks to Abu Ghraib shot with a wild fish eye lens that emphasizes the descent into madness, the figurative drowning in Hell on Earth.
While the character of Bill is only slightly different on paper from Travis Bickle (military veteran living in solitude and having difficulty connecting with others), he’s made unique because of Oscar Isaac. Isaac finds ways of presenting Bill’s PTSD without having him explode or become melodramatic. In a very realistic way, Bill has developed systems to help him keep things at an equilibrium. He dresses down his motel rooms to make them resemble his prison cell. Bill knows acquaintances in the gambling circuit but certainly no one that would be considered a friend. Cirk ends up being the first person he grows close to, which leads to a romantic relationship with Linda as his heart opens up just the slightest bit. Gambling itself is even part of this system of coping because Bill isn’t terribly interested in “big” wins; instead, he finds comfort in the calm systematic method of card counting.
At the core of The Card Counter is an extremely moral tale. Bill does not see himself as better than the man who caused him to end up in prison. He’s fully aware he chose to participate in the violence in Iraq; Gordo just spurred him on and refined the methods. The line for Bill is in what happens to Cirk, who plays the Jodie Foster-adjacent role, an innocent who doesn’t really want to listen to our protagonist. Cirk’s story goes down some very different routes, though, and is the catalyst for the movie’s off-screen bout of violence. Unlike Bickle, Bill does find peace at the end of the film. He knows himself better than the Taxi Driver protagonist was ever able to do, so Bill can come to terms with who he is and how he can live in the world. It may not be the way you or I would choose, but Bill knows this is best for him.