‘The Card Counter’ Asks Whether an Abu Ghraib Torturer Is Worthy of a Second Chance
The latest from filmmaker Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “First Reformed”), and premiering at the Venice Film Festival, is much more than a gambling movie.
While discussing his new film The Card Counter in an interview with Deadline, filmmaker Paul Schrader presented a paradox, both railing against the supposed insidiousness of “cancel culture” while decrying people’s strong aversion to personal responsibility. “What I was trying to capture from this moment,” he explained, “is this lack of responsibility people seem to have. ‘I didn’t lie, I misspoke,’ ‘I didn’t touch her inappropriately, I made a mistake.’ Nobody is really responsible for anything.”
What Schrader fails to realize is that “cancel culture” is most often invoked by those wishing to evade responsibility (“it’s the culture that’s toxic, not me!”), and while context is indeed important, it doesn’t grant you an indulgence. I am reminded of Bob Baffert, the legendary horse trainer, who blamed “cancel culture” when his Kentucky Derby-winning horse was found to have tested positive for steroids.
This is all, of course, germane to Schrader’s latest, which centers on a mysterious card counter by the name of William Tell (Oscar Isaac, more brooding than ever) who, after a ten-year stint behind bars, drifts from casino to casino across the U.S. winning small sums of money at blackjack and Texas hold ‘em. An early sequence sees William pocket $750 counting cards at blackjack before booking a cheap motel room, removing the artwork and devices, and covering all of the furniture in white sheets—for he is a ghost who lives an ascetic life of cards, sleep, and the occasional glass of whiskey.
Like many of Schrader’s antiheroes, from Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle to the eco-conscious Pastor Ernst Toller of First Reformed, William is a haunted diarist in search of absolution. And he believes he’s found it in Cirk (Tye Sheridan), another lost soul whom God dealt a terrible hand. So, he hatches a plot to make things right: get staked by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who bankrolls a stable of card sharks; win a few high-stakes poker tournaments; pay off Cirk’s debts; and reunite him with his estranged mother.
It is fascinating that the aughts poker boom, ignited by Chris Moneymaker’s storybook win at the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event, has yet to inspire a single decent poker film (a few eye-hemorrhaging scenes in Casino Royale notwithstanding). The Card Counter won’t change this, as it is far more concerned with the burden of guilt than what happens on the felt—and because of this, it’s OK to overlook some of its slip-ups when it comes to the world of gambling, such as misdescribing prize pools, extolling roulette odds, and failing to so much as mention the importance of timely aggression in poker or what makes William such a gifted poker player in the first place other than his steely edge.
Early on in the film, we learn that “William Tell” is a cutesy alias; his real name is PFC William Tillich, and he served that lengthy prison sentence after he was found to have tortured detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. In maze-like, washed-out flashback sequences shot with a fisheye lens, we see PFC Tillich brutalizing his prisoners and giddily posing with them, a la Lynddie England (who only ended up serving a year and a half behind bars). That PFC Tillich arrived at Abu Ghraib a softer man and was hardened under the tutelage of a Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), a sadistic civilian contractor specializing in torture, begs the question of whether he also fell victim to a corrupting system—though, as Tillich asserts, “Nothing can justify what we did.”
Schrader’s film poses intriguing questions about redemption and self-reproach. Given the extreme nature of Tillich’s crimes, is he redeemable? Has he served his penance? Should we allow his guilt to consume him, or is he, too, worthy of a helping hand? Isaac—and his beautiful head of graying hair—does a fine job of stirring up pity for Tillich, another of God’s lonely men bearing the weight of our collective sins on his shoulders. His chemistry with Haddish, who provides another way out of his misery, is powerful, culminating in a hallucinatory stroll through a neon-lit park, captured on high by a roving drone. But The Card Counter tips its hand when, during a pool-side tête-à-tête with Cirk, Tillich draws a parallel between a poker player going on “tilt” (or becoming consumed by emotion and making a series of bad plays) to “force drift,” a phenomenon whereby torturers no longer see their captives as human and apply more and more pain. In what world are these two even remotely the same?