The Card Counter” opened on the eve of 9/11, surely no coincidence. Like the film that most recently preceded it in Paul Schrader’s vast oeuvre, “First Reformed,” “The Card Counter” is a morality tale. Its principal character is William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a highly skilled professional gambler who prefers counting cards against the house in blackjack, betting low and winning low under the radar, rather than playing against table stakes in high profile poker tournaments. Soon enough we discover he was also a military “interrogator” at Abu Ghraib – a past that haunts him and for which he will give anything to atone. In other words, he is a classic Paul Schrader character.
The gambler Tell ironically plays his games of cards without a tell. Essentially only three others make up the dramatis personae: LaLinda (a remarkably sensitive Tiffany Haddish) who is herself a skilled poker player with whom Tell has earlier crossed paths and who now coordinates a stable of players for high stakes poker games; Tell’s “enhanced interrogation” trainer, Roger Gordo (Willem Dafoe), who is now a civilian arms intelligence dealer selling his wares at casino conferences where Tell also encounters “Cirk with a ‘C’” (Tye Sheridan) – the son of another Abu Ghraib alumnus trained by Gordo – who knows Tell because he has cyber-stalked the people from his suicide father’s past.
We follow only one additional character. At one of the film’s first venues, we encounter an obnoxious, and very successful, tournament poker player who will dog the remainder of the narrative. His sobriquet is “Mr. USA,” and he travels with an entourage of two, all three decked out in red, white and blue, flag waving regalia. Mr. USA always wins, and when he does, his entourage chants, “USA, USA, USA.” He functions as a kind of trickster – cunning, boastful and disruptive. He is Ukrainian and has never served in the U.S. military, but co-opts far right patriotic sectarianism to sensationalize his persona.
Schrader is notorious for his solitary antiheroes who, often through nightly diaries, engage in deep self-examination in search of a path to redemption: from Travis Bickle in 1996’s “Taxi Driver” (Robert DeNiro) through a twenty-year trajectory to the Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke) in 2017’s “First Reformed.” (Willem Dafoe’s John Le Tour in 1992’s “Light Sleeper” explains, “When a drug dealer starts keeping a diary, it’s time to quit. I started writing…. Not every night; now and then. Fill up one book, throw it out. Start another.”) All are questionable characters with questionable pasts, but all seek to rescue not themselves alone, but another in service to a profoundly universal good – wherein lies a worldly salvation.
Having served his eight-and-a-half years in military prison (at first, we don’t know for what), Tell now kills his time on the road, spending nights not in casino hotels, but in even seedier motels outside the casino strips of sad mid-American landscapes. Tell is anonymous, writing and sleeping in each tawdry space he invests with ritualistic ascetism by removing all extraneous objects from each anonymous room, then wrapping/covering/shrouding what remains in fabric and twine ala Christo and Jeanne-Claude in preparation for his nightly journal writing. In one entry he writes, “There is a moral weight a man can accrue. This is the weight created by his past actions. It is a weight that can never be removed.”
As it turns out, Tell was one of those prosecuted as a result of the publication of the depravity exposed by the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs. He has recently been released from Leavenworth for his transgressions. Now a professional card gambler, he happens upon a conference featuring a lecture by Major John Gordo, Rtd. (Dafoe).
Willem Dafoe has figured in a number of Schrader films, most notably in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 “The Last Temptation of Christ” for which Schrader wrote the script, Schrader’s 1999 adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel “Affliction,” his 2008 adaptation of the Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk’s novel “Adam Resurrected,” and the above mentioned 1992 “Light Sleeper.” In “The Card Counter,” Dafoe’s Gordo functions as the nexus of our national shame.
As a result of his time at Abu Ghraib, Cirk’s father spent years going berserk before shooting himself, and Cirk harbors a deep and festering resentment that only those in the grotesque photographs of Abu Ghraib were prosecuted – not their superiors, not their superiors’ superiors – despite the fact that those superiors, reaching into the highest echelons of government, put those torture conditions into effect. (To this day, Liz Chaney contends water boarding is not torture.)
Those who knowingly implemented this obscenity, just as those who have conspired to create the environmental global climate catastrophe that awakens the Rev. Toller in “First Reformed,” are central to Schader’s project yet again. Cirk – like the husband and wife are for Toller in “First Reformed” – is the catalyst for Tell’s awakening. Even in his youthful naivete, Cirk creditably argues, “They claim there were bad apples. There weren’t bad apples. The barrel was bad.”
Out of a desire to break his isolation and a nascent sense of mentorship, Tell invites Cirk to join him on the road. “I’m a card player. I move from city to city, casino to casino, cardroom to cardroom.” Anonymity is Tell’s essence; Blackjack is his favored game.
Though never overtly expressed in “The Card Counter,” the Blackjack gambling count parallels the Calvinist theology so central to Schrader’s worldview. Blackjack, Tell explains, relies on dependent events, meaning the past affects the probability of the future. What the untenable action (event) is that William Tell has committed is unmitigated torture. Schrader suggests that the actions of the United States go on right under our complicit noses while we do nothing, and that complex of past events will inevitably affect our future.
Up and down the highways and byways of the numbing American landscape, Tell and Cirk traverse the same monotony of commercial strip after commercial strip from one trashy joint to the next. The implication is that the resultant dearth of community and meaning is the cause of the jingoism that festered after 9/11, the torture at Abu Ghraib, the bombings of the wars across the Middle East, and all the rest of America’s xenophobic presumption.
“I trust my life to providence/I trust my soul to grace.” These are the words tattooed across Tell’s shoulders, and they are also the first words of Michael Been’s soundtrack for Schrader’s “Light Sleeper.” They are words that could also serve as a motto for the Rev. Toller in “First Reformed.” (Michael Been’s son Robert Levon Been composed the mesmerizing score for “The Card Counter.” Dirge-like and hypnotic by turns, it could not more perfectly amplify Schrader’s thematic vision and Alexander Dynan’s immersive cinematic aesthetic.)
Intertwined within the twinned theological concept of providence and grace, Schrader introduces the concept of “tilt,” the danger of being consumed by “force drift” whereby one gives into the addictive adrenaline rush from behaviors of abuse, debasement and humiliation. Schrader previously explored this phenomenon in “Affliction,” in which a smalltown sheriff (Nick Nolte) violently confronts the lifelong abuses of his father.
The human desire to believe we are each above reproach, that we are holier than thou, that the other is guilty but I am not, seems to be dangerously inherent in the human psyche. Schrader warns that we can all quite easily, and quickly, go there. We can all tilt. We can all torture. Those Schrader celebrates are the afflicted souls who recognize, accept and struggle to atone for their guilt – a process that succeeds only through the grace of others.
Cirk is Tell’s necessary Judas, LaLinda his Mary Magdaline, and the process is thus: Sin is the transgression against morality; atonement is the reparation for that transgression; providence is God’s benevolent intervention in that transgression; but the ultimate grace is the unmerited gift of forgiveness, which in Schrader’s universe, comes from the human existential action that confers meaning in the face of the meaningless abyss.
Through LaLinda, Tell comes to understand: “The feeling of being forgiven by another and of forgiving yourself are the same. There’s no point in trying to keep them distinct.” Only grace can redeem. LaLinda becomes, not simply a source of revenue by which Tell can attempt to save a young Cirk, but a catalyst for his own soul’s redemption. And that is what “The Card Counter” – what in fact the entirely of Schrader’s oeuvre – has always been about. Grace is manifested in Tell’s desire to save his unlikely young charge and in the love extended to him in a kind and unjudgmental woman who knows that we are all sinners whose contrition deserves forgiveness.