The Card Counter is an unwavering exploration into the dark depths of forgiveness
“A good movie starts when you step out of the cinema. These are the words of legendary writer-director Paul Schrader, the man behind the scripts of great Americans such as Taxi driver and Angry bull. His latest directorial effort, co-produced with Martin Scorsese, embraces that very idea – and amplifies it to a scale you can’t ignore.
The said film is The card counter, having made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival a few days before its theatrical release. Another entry into Schrader’s fascination with tortured men, it’s an impenetrable thriller and one that you can’t really understand until you’ve watched, treated, retired, and treated more. Characterized by skillful undertones and alarming realism, it continually goes where you last expected it, transforming into a journey where dread, euphoria, and sympathy are all stops along the way.
The basic idea is this: William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a poker player and former military touring American casinos, having learned to count cards while in prison. His participation in a fateful event leads to meeting an unreadable young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan). This encounter changes the axis of his life, pushing him out of his solitary sphere and into a precarious realm of possibilities.
Good old-fashioned storytelling is how the film chooses to make its opening remarks. But there is nothing typical about what is said and how it is said – William’s voiceover is inherently suggestive of a dark side and therefore extremely interesting. He ruminates on his strange acclimatization to prison life and his affinity for gambling before moving on to his current life as a free man. Only, it is not quite a life because it is an existence, an icy and monotonous existence in which he goes unnoticed through anonymous motel rooms.
Fairly early on, William has his first interaction with someone who could be his saving grace. Owner of a poker team, her name is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). The two quickly form a friendship brimming with romantic undertones. We learn that William is not playing for money or fame after refusing La Linda’s offer to stake him. So far, however, his past and the reason for close to a decade are subjects deliberately left untouched.
That soon changes when Cirk approaches him in the middle of a seminar hosted by Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). As they meet sitting across from each other, William’s world-weary cynicism has finally met a match with Cirk’s sloppy naivety. The two think differently and live differently, yet William decides to take the latter under his wing. His goal is to give Cirk a fresh start, who begins by tackling the young man’s money and family issues. This is where the film takes off – abundant exposure, the film decides it’s high time to delve into its grainy themes.
At this point, the fact that The card counter is a film of metaphors and abstractions is a realization that is slowly becoming clear. It is definitely not about a new virtuous life and even less about the game. On the contrary, it lives with happiness the genre of film noir, where the inner demons of the protagonist take center stage. Ordinary interactions have a deeper and darker meaning. For example, a laconic moment where William loses a match against one of his memorable and recurring opponents shows not two men shaking hands, but the head-on collision of patriotic idealism and disillusionment.
Certain levels of experimentation reinforce this, especially since Schrader is willing to explore outside of traditional independent cinema. Lighting and lens type, even taken from VR technology, are tools he wields terribly well in flashback scenes. Another sequence is made unforgettable through the use of effects and lighting, making it a beautiful yet haunting awakening moment.
But even though this is one of the best works of the year, it is not without imperfections. As we disturbingly delve into William’s inner turmoil, we are ultimately prevented from fully grasping the psyches of the other characters.
The majority of the film allows us – and even invites – to understand Cirk, the drastically different burden he carries, and his nefarious approach to life that William wants to correct. Yet her perspective, in its most complex and narratively rich form, is almost entirely omitted towards the end, creating an inconsistent and disorienting conclusion for her character. Likewise, La Linda’s final decision, if helped by more context and story, would have had a much bigger impact.
Pretty much the very last element you notice is the acting, with the story being as immersive as it gets. Isaac’s screen mastery is irrefutable, a career best performance that is sure to linger in the public mind during awards season. Although William is stoic, the moments we see his pain are brimming with emotion and vulnerability. One scene in particular, a peak in the film, makes full use of Isaac’s magnetic intensity – the results are nothing short of terrifying.
It is a tall order to make sense of The card counter – even at the end, the questions you want to answer remain firmly in the air. But that’s the sparkle of it. The film transforms and evolves, like a puzzle that continually reorganizes itself as you try to solve it; the exercise is simply to study it, not to solve it. And indeed, it is a careful study. It is an investigation into the gnawing of moral weight, a scrutiny of internal and external forces. It’s a resounding world of turmoil and vice, and once you’re there, Schrader never really lets you out.