Though it was still a strange and often difficult film, First Reformed found Paul Schrader in a quieter, more ‘palatable’ mood than many of his recent films, and it had all the (deserved) critical plaudits to show for it. If you thought that might have marked a more permanent change of direction, however, The Card Counter is here to prove you wrong, Schrader returning to the acrid muck that birthed many of his most iconic characters. It’s never quite the film you expect, its story of a successful low-stakes gambler twisting into a solemn but nauseating examination of the fetid evil that is the American war machine.
Oscar Isaac plays a soldier turned card shark, real name William Tillich but going by the more mythic William Tell. Tell learned to count cards during an eight year prison stint for the crimes he committed at Abu Ghraib – a punishment he knows deep in his bones was far too lenient for his atrocities – and now travels America’s east coast, racking consistent wins that are just about small enough to fly under casinos’ radars. Like most of Paul Schrader’s leading men, Tell starts out a loner, occupied by only his profession and his diary, but he soon meets two people who bring him into their orbits until he comes to a fork in the road.
On one hand, there’s La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a charming and funny headhunter for investors who stake proficient gamblers and take some of their winnings in return, offering Tell big money and a way out of his cyclical casino-to-casino existence. The other path is offered by Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of one of Tell’s fellow soldiers at Abu Ghraib, a soldier who came home from war drunken and abusive before eventually killing himself. Cirk wants Tell to help him kill the man in charge of the torture program, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), a very nasty piece of work who managed to get away without any charges brought against him.
This push and pull lends The Card Counter a constant and uneasy tension – the gambling offers thrills while the possibility of violence hangs heavy over Tell and Cirk’s heads, all backed by an eerie score that is filled with gasps and growls and other strange vocalisations. Schrader wants to keep you uncomfortable, especially in the flashbacks to Abu Ghraib, which are filmed as if you’re watching them through virtual reality goggles. You lurch through rooms filled with terror and degradation, immersed in the horror of it all in one of the more unsparing accounts of just how horrendous America’s conduct during the War on Terror was and still is.
Though he dresses his protagonist in nothing but shades of grey, Schrader’s moral compass is keenly and clearly set throughout The Card Counter, and Isaac is superb as a man who knows he can never be forgiven, moving between traumatised rage and silent stillness in ways that are both moving and a little frightening. Schrader keeps Tell a bit of a mystery – he has an odd and unexplained habit of wrapping every bit of furniture in a motel room with white linens – but his writing, melded with Isaac’s performance still gives us plenty of subtle insights into Tell’s psyche, especially in the moments where Tell tries to save Cirk from his doomed mission.
Tell knows there’s no justice to be found when it comes to the American military, and it’s this grim but vital message that The Card Counter leaves us with in an ending that eschews catharsis. It’s not as deep or as fascinating as First Reformed, but this is still a textbook Schrader morality tale, mixing doom with faint glimmers of hope, as foolish as that hope may be, all anchored by Oscar Isaac’s best performance in years.