The Card Counter
The Card Counter is not a Halloween film but there is something pumpkin-y about its poker-playing protagonist’s (Oscar Isaac) hard exterior and messed-up insides. There is also a great deal of horror in his flashbacks to Abu Ghraib, where the former soldier tortured prisoners under the auspices of the sadistic Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe). While the major quietly retired to the lucrative private sector, the private spent eight years in military prison where he learnt to count cards. Now nominally a free man, the card counter has built himself a new prison of routine and isolation on the American casino circuit under the name William Tell.
Over a long career that started with his script for Taxi Driver, writer/director Paul Schrader has always played his cards close to his chest, but one can consistently bet on there being religion, morality, violence, redemption and self-sacrifice. Sure as the lights will shine in Vegas, William finds his shot at salvation when he meets a tempting admirer (Tiffany Haddish) and a wayward son (Tye Sheridan) – not his son but that of a man who suffered equally under Gordo’s command, making the boy hellbent on revenge. But William has read Marcus Aurelius and has learnt to let go of his anger. Besides, he knows a bad bet when he sees one.
This is a strange film, as bleak and interesting as its director’s pedigree, albeit lacking the focus of his previous picture, First Reformed. Once again the story begs not to be taken literally, which calls into question the necessity of so much extraneous information about card game tactics, endlessly recited in Isaac’s voiceover. Poker here functions a bit like Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter or chess in Revolver – thrown in to raise the stakes and reveal truths about the human condition, without really advancing the plot or saying anything new. The viewer doesn’t have to be a professional poker player to read William facing an American flag-waving, “USA!”-chanting opponent as a battle against the post-9/11 toxic patriotism in whose name he committed atrocities.
Yet the movie is oddly compelling, thanks largely to Isaac’s performance, in which he channels his young Al Pacino first seen in A Most Violent Year. Though her presence is jarring, Haddish brings much-needed levity to the ugly-carpeted purgatory that is America’s Casino Belt (the aesthetic and spiritual equivalent of a Wetherspoons pub crawl). The deliberate manner is alienating and the Abu Ghraib scenes disturbing, shot with a warped lens and intensified by beyond-dark music – and god (and Martin Scorsese) knows nobody writes a scary monologue quite like Paul Schrader. With more torture and poker than Casino Royale, The Card Counter continues Schrader’s obsession with men who are obsessed and delivers another tough, angular autopsy of America’s soul.
The Card Counter is released in select cinemas on 5th November 2021.
Watch the trailer for The Card Counter here: