Paul Schrader’s signature image is of a lonely middle-aged man who drinks a glass of alcohol and writes in his journal, pouring out all his dark thoughts and sinful secrets. In the 1992 film A light sleeper, he was a drug dealer in the midst of a midlife crisis. In the most recent First reformed, he was a minister radicalized by the threat of climate change.
Schrader likes to get deep into these men and their tortured souls, but there’s a funny coincidence in the way he assigns his characters their respective issues. His new captivating image, The card counter, is no exception: it stars Oscar Isaac as a professional player who was a serviceman stationed at Abu Ghraib.
We don’t know all that at the start. Isaac’s character is called William Tell, the pseudonym for a silly gamer. When we first meet William, he explains that he spent years in prison for an unspecified crime. It was behind bars that William learned to count cards. Now he spends his days jumping from casino to casino, playing blackjack and poker, and doing just enough to beat the house without cleaning it up. At night, he returns to his motel room, writes in his journal, and tries to keep his demons at bay.
Very early on, William meets a gambling agent named La Linda, played by a charming Tiffany Haddish, who wants him to join the big leagues. Haddish and Isaac have a sneaky chemistry that goes from flirtatious to sizzling in no time, even though William initially pushes back La Linda’s professional overtures.
Eventually, Schrader sheds light on William’s past, through a series of encounters that seem contrived at first, but gradually bring out the central conflict of the story. In a casino, one evening, William spies on Major John Gordo, played by Willem Dafoe. Gordo was his former superior years ago in Abu Ghraib and taught him everything he knows about torture and questioning suspects. But while William was later court martialed and went to jail, Gordo escaped unscathed and now works as a private security contractor.
That same night, William meets a dropout named Cirk, played by Tye Sheridan, whose father was also trained by Gordo; he was dismissed without honor and ultimately committed suicide. Now Cirk wants revenge on Gordo and asks William to help him.
Schrader drops a few poignant flashbacks to Abu Ghraib, digging a hole in the film’s calm and stable surface. We see prisoners being abused and interrogated in footage filmed with a highly distorting wide-angle lens, a visual and moral abomination. It is probably no coincidence that The card counter is published so close to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Schrader can be downright didactic when it suits him, but here he sincerely invites the public to reflect on the legacy of 9/11, including the crimes Americans committed in the name of justice.
William, who tries to distance himself from his past, doesn’t want to be part of Cirk’s plan and tries to dissuade him from going through with it. He takes the kid under his wing and lets him follow his tour of the casino. He also responds to La Linda’s invitation to join his team, hoping to earn enough on the poker circuit to help Cirk financially and get him back to school. But it’s easier said than done. As in so many of Schrader’s films, even going back to his screenplay for the Martin Scorsese film Taxi driver, a violent end seems inevitable no matter how hard our hero tries to avoid it.
It’s a superb role for Isaac, who brings his usual sneaky and moving magnetism to the role of a man who traces every move with suave precision. William is always impeccably dressed in a shirt, tie and leather jacket. When he moves into a new motel room, he covers each piece of furniture with plain white sheets, as if trying to impose extreme order on the extreme disorder of his past. But in Isaac’s dark, haunted gaze, we see a story of trauma that cannot be purged so easily. Once young Cirk enters the scene, William sees a chance to further right his sins and do good in the world.
This world seems terribly dull in The card counter, a suburban wasteland that time seems to have forgotten. The America that William has devoted so much of his life to serving doesn’t look so good. But there is one exception, when La Linda takes William one night to tour the illuminated Missouri Botanical Garden, flooding the screen with vibrant colors that accentuate the actors’ dazzling rapport. As dark as things can get in Schrader’s films, he’s also a romantic at heart, someone who sees in love the possibility of both risk and redemption.
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