'The Card Counter' Deals a Full House of Great Performances Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Published Sep 09, 2021Paul Schrader loves his isolated and troubled leading men. The writer-director has had a successful career creating characters shrouded in mystery, and tortured by the demons of their past. They may not be likeable, but they're products of their environment and confounded by the world around them — with notable examples including his screenplays for Taxi Driver, Bringing Out the Dead and more recently in 2017's First Reformed (which he also directed). The Card Counter is his latest effort, and while the film features familiar trademarks, it still stands out as a unique and layered piece thanks to Schrader's writing and a gripping performance from his lead actor.
Oscar Isaac plays the mysterious William Tell, who, after serving eight years in prison, travels to different casinos and makes a modest living playing blackjack. La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) recognizes his talent and wants to financially back Tell to get him involved in higher stakes poker tournaments, but he isn't interested. When he stumbles upon a seminar being given by Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), he's approached by a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan). Cirk explains he knows Tell was incarcerated for torturing political prisoners while he served under Gordo at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Cirk's father, a recruit like Tell, never recovered from the experience psychologically and became abusive towards Cirk and his mother before taking his own life. Now Cirk wants to act and needs Tell's help to go through with it, compelling Tell to persuade Cirk away from extracting revenge.
The name Tell feels a little too on the nose, but fitting because he's such an enigma. Tell excels at counting cards, and playing poker specifically, since he is able to hide everything about himself. He dresses in a monochrome grey (fitting for a man void of personality) and only spends time at the casino or in his motel room, where he has covered all of the furniture and appliances in white cloth. Schrader has created a character who seeks to imprison himself further because he feels that is the only way to properly atone for the atrocities he's committed. The lifestyle of going from casino to casino, excelling at poker because skilled players "have to sit and wait," reveals Tell to be a character who requires further penance to avoid feelings of guilt.
Despite the focus on Tell, Schrader is just as interested in exploring the failure of the institutions that put Tell in that position in the first place. When Cirk discusses the fallout from Abu Ghraib and the soldiers involved, he explains, "The apples weren't rotten. The barrels they came from were." Schrader includes archival footage of American troops who were subjected to abuse, and torture as part of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program, which was created to train captured soldiers to endure interrogations. Those were the same techniques Tell was instructed to use on political prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but were also used across countless other black sites. The decision to include such footage serves to condemn not only those involved but also the people in power who placed them in that situation to begin with. And while those in power never had to face any accountability, the soldiers instructed to carry out those orders were the ones left solely to blame.
Schrader makes sure to constantly remind Tell of that fact. Once he joins the poker circuit, he comes across a player credited as "Mr. USA", who, dressed in an American flag-designed tank top, is cocky and loud and has even cockier and louder fans who chant "USA! USA!" whenever he knocks out an opponent. Schrader makes sure Mr. USA is always winning in an obnoxious fashion, disposing of opponents with complete disregard, in ways that link to Tell's experiences and the American government's response to the war on terror as a whole. Despite the directness of certain scenes, Schrader keeps focused on his characters, maintaining a delicate balance between the narrative and his political critique.
The complexities of the story and themes are realized because of Oscar Isaac's impactful performance. He subtly conveys all of the guilt, sadness and regret Tell has towards himself, as well as the anger, fury and hate he carries toward Major Gordo and the American government for their failures. When his relationship with Cirk and La Linda grows, Isaac reveals Tell's internal struggle as he attempts to forgive himself and pursue a life free from the torments of the past. Haddish and Sheridan complement him nicely, but it's Isaac who pulls off the difficult feat of making an audience question whether or not a character who has committed such heinous acts is deserving of a second chance at life.
The Card Counter is emotionally draining, but that's in part because of how pertinent the themes remain. Yes, Schrader's focus is on Tell, but the country is in a state where the ghosts of the past still haunt. All of those emotions Isaac conveys exist within many, and Schrader has created a film that will leave an impression on its audience because of how accurately it captures an uneasy feeling that's existed for years, but has been elusive to explain. (Focus)