Review: The Card Counter
Tattooed upon the back of the aptly named gambler William Tell (Oscar Isaac) are the words “I trust my life to providence, I trust my soul to grace.” The Card Counter (2021), the latest film by “transcendental style” scholar and practitioner Paul Schrader, is about reconciling with what one can control and what is in the cards. With gambling foregrounded as an action reliant upon chance, William Tell’s ability to count cards is a defiant act that seeks to render luck obsolete. Gambling and the jargon that surrounds it are used as a dramatic tool for analyzing the human condition, and Schrader excels here with a film bolstered by a script restrained enough to let its subject breathe.
There is “a moral weight a man can accrue,” writes William Tell in his diary. “This is the weight created by his past actions. It is a weight that can never be removed.” Returning to the epistolary structure that Schrader has notably admired in Robert Bresson‘s Diary of A Country Priest (1951), these diary entries by our lonesome protagonist serve as voiceover throughout much of the film. Living an inconspicuous life, William practices anonymous gambling seemingly just to pass the time and survive, bouncing from hotel to hotel without making a scene. Gambling is something that William fell into while serving time in prison for the war crimes he and other American servicemembers committed at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. It was in a place without freedom that he learned how to count cards – thus working to curtail chance and luck in a very focused manner. The “weight” that William has collected haunts him in his daily life as well as in his slumber. The freedom that was taken from prisoners by his hand is a stain on his heart.
Providentially, two opportunities fall into William Tell’s lap in close proximity: the chance for financial backing in his gambling and the chance to exact revenge against the man who trained him to torture at Abu Ghraib. These two disparate plans run parallel to one another and eventually coalesce as William Tell recruits a young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who introduced the plan to kill the Abu Ghraib trainer, to join him in a bid for La Linda (Tiffany Haddish)’s sponsorship.
Balancing these storylines is a challenge, and Schrader truly rises to the occasion. Unlike his previous film, First Reformed (2017), The Card Counter feels like something wholly new, and it lacks the tongue-in-cheek staginess of much of the drama in Reformed. Oscar Isaac brings a stoicism to the role of William Tell that allows Schrader to pull this off with ease. He’s suave but distant, which also happens to be the aesthetic of the film. The camera lingers as William passes in and out of the frame, stripping the walls of decoration and tying a white sheet over the desk and lamp in his hotel room. His room is a reflection of who he is, and the spaces in between his presence on screen in this shot are just as important as the moments spent with him. Schrader has referred to this in the past as a “distancing technique,” but here it invites us into William’s state of mind.
The Card Counter is not necessarily humorless, but even the most serene of scenes are marked with loneliness and isolation. The camera lingers over a motel swimming pool where William and Cirk are seated, and their speech and the ambient noise are all that can be heard. Another couple that is closer to the camera is selectively muted from the sound design, allowing for William and Cirk to seem alone even when they’re in the presence of others. Similarly, one of the most visually-captivating scenes in the film finds William on a night out with La Linda at a park illuminated by thousands of multicolored lights that pulsate and shift in hue. Their hands brush against one another’s, recalling such depictions of the desire for the human touch as in François Truffaut‘s Shoot The Piano Player (1960), but the score for the film by Robert Levon Been keeps the film thematically and tonally grounded in pervasive alienation.
Contrasted with the look of the rest of the film, or almost any film for that matter, are the scenes at Abu Ghraib. The camera moves about down lengthy hallways that are foreshortened so as to muddy the perception of depth. Everything is at once distant and yet oppressively close. The total depravity of Abu Ghraib becomes a texture for the spectator to engage with – a texture that conveys the psychology and abject nature of torture and the worst from humanity.
Interestingly, gambling is never spoken of or hinted at as an addiction in The Card Counter. Instead, it is a positive pursuit for a lonesome soul like William Tell to try to realize his will in a world that is full of structures that defy freedom. While the reasoning behind why he sets out on this gambling tour with Cirk is less than satisfying, the dramatic intent is ambitious and worth pondering. Every action and place in the film’s final act feels like it already has a predetermined outcome, since the stakes are so high. If one thing happens, then another must follow. It’s not a gamble when you know what is about to be dealt.
The Card Counter is currently ranked 333/2,711 (88%) on my Flickchart.