The Del Mar Theatre is back in business, and so is Paul Schrader with his new film, The Card Counter. Schrader’s stories often revolve around deeply damaged souls, their vices symptomatic of their troubled psyches; violence in Raging Bull, sex in Auto Focus, and alcohol in First Reformed. In The Card Counter, it’s gambling. The Card Counter stars Oscar Isaac as a laser-focused professional card player. He goes by the moniker of William Tell, a nod to the folk legend who killed his oppressor. William bounces from casino to casino, counting cards and winning pots, but not enough to get banned from playing.
Hellish flashbacks, made all the more nightmarish with perspective distorting fisheye lenses, reveal that William administered what’s euphemistically referred to as “enhanced interrogations” at Abu Ghraib. William became a sacrificial lamb sentenced to nine years at Leavenworth while those he took his orders from simply switched careers. Now a free man, and all too cognizant of the suffering he inflicted, William continues to pay penance with a lifestyle that mirrors his incarceration. Inside the hotel rooms in which he lives, he removes whatever framed pictures are on the walls and covers all the furniture and lamps with plain white sheets, recreating the bland austerity of his former jail cell. The repetitive nature of his obsessive card playing gives him the structure he admits he enjoyed at Leavenworth.
The Card Counter’s plot reveals its hand when William discovers that the casino he’s at is hosting a security convention, and one of its speakers is Major Gordo, the sadistic superior, played by Willem Defoe, who gleefully taught William how to torture prisoners. Seemingly out of curiosity, William attends one of Gordo’s presentations. Also in attendance is Cirk, a young man played by Tye Sheridan, who’s stalking Gordo. Cirk recognizes William as one of the men who paid for Gordo’s war crimes, just as his own father did, so he approaches him and calmly suggests that they team together to murder the nefarious Gordo.
As is often the case with Schrader’s stories, there’s no shortage of Christian undertones. Cirk represents temptation, should his quest for vigilante justice seduce William into helping. But he also offers an opportunity for redemption, if William can let go of the past and persuade Cirk to abort his mission. Adding to the moral nexus is La Linda, played by Tiffany Haddish, an attractive financier who paves a road to salvation as a potential love interest when she offers to sponsor William for the World Series of Poker.
It’s probably not coincidental that the release of The Card Counter overlapped the 20th anniversary of 9/11, premiering nationwide just the day before, or that William’s main poker rival is known as “Mr. U.S.A.”; wearing a muscle shirt and accompanied by a fist pumping entourage chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A,” he’s the symbolic embodiment of the macho, let’s-kick-some-butt mentality and patriotic fervor so prevalent after 9/11. And the fate of one of Schrader’s characters can be read as an allegory for the wars we started in the Middle East, which in hindsight look less like a viable foreign policy and more like an act of masochistic retribution. The Card Counter is a fascinating character portrait with the trappings of a suspenseful revenge thriller, all wrapped up in a bloody American flag.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski