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This piece was originally published on Discourse Blog on Sept. 21, 2021.
The first thing to know about Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter is that it’s not about counting cards. At least not really; that would be like saying that First Reformed, Schrader’s last movie, is about boosting dwindling attendance numbers at a small-town Dutch Reformed Church. The Card Counter spends about 10 minutes following its protagonist— born William Tillich but going by William Tell, and perfectly played by Oscar Isaac with remarkably subsumed darkness and monk-like restraint—joylessly practicing the actual art of card counting as he travels from casino to casino, playing blackjack for relatively low stakes to avoid tangling with security. He spends eight to 10 hours a day at the card table and then retires to anonymous motels whose furniture he meticulously wraps in white sheets he carries around with him; the finished rooms look ghostly and unoccupied.
We soon learn what has led Tell to such a bleak existence. In a previous life—when he still went by Tillich—he was a grunt soldier deployed to Abu Ghraib and instructed in the ways of “enhanced interrogation,” that uniquely American euphemism for torture, by Major John Gordo (played by the masterful Willem Dafoe). As in the real-world Abu Ghraib scandal, Tell was one of the soldiers held accountable—he served more than eight years in prison—for appearing in photos posing with prisoners he was torturing. Gordo, like the real architects of the torture program, escaped unscathed after the photos came to light.
After these revelations, Tell’s room-wrapping routine takes on a new resonance. He seems to be trying to turn his whole life into a series of prison cells—appropriate for the “life of incarceration” he says he’s suited for.
Tell atones for his past by writing in a journal. Scenes of him writing about the prison lead to flashbacks of him first learning how to execute torture, and then putting his lessons into practice, with visuals that make you feel like you’re descending into and being enveloped by hell itself.
The only structure that seems to inform Tell’s travels is the presence of law enforcement conferences (and other adjacent fields) held at these casinos, and when he drops in on a “security” talk by Gordo, he’s immediately recognized by Cirk (played by Tye Sheridan with what I can only describe as school-shooter energy) who explains that his name is “Kirk with a C” and reveals that he’s the son of a military man who was also under Gordo’s tutelage at the Baghdad prison. Cirk says his father turned abusive when he got back from Iraq, before eventually killing himself when the guilt of what he’d done became unbearable. He informs Tell of his half-baked plan to capture and torture the former commander to death as revenge. Tell wants to put Cirk on a different path, one where he returns to college and makes peace with his mother. So, to earn the cash to fund those goals, he reconnects with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who maintains a stable of gamblers she connects with big-money backers to stake them for tournament play.
It’s this decision that provides an emotional core to the film. Without it, we understand Tell would’ve continued aimlessly haunting casinos until the end of his natural life—a truly solitary being, existing within but also just outside the rest of the human world, like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle—another character created by Schrader.
Watching the film, I was stunned by Tell’s sudden enthusiasm for helping Cirk and his quick decision to invite the young man to join him on the road. They’re never exactly clapping each other on the back as friends, but it’s clear that Tell is something of a father figure and mentor to Cirk. (It’s also not an accident that the person Tell chooses to disrupt his life for is someone with a connection to the wounds he has both inflicted and received.) Neither of them are moving through the world exactly aimlessly—Cirk is hellbent on killing Gordo while Tell is a traveling gambler—but they’re close to it, and their meeting sets them both on another course. (Or so we think, at least.) They’re both two men deeply in need of human connection, of anything to keep them moored to humanity. The protagonist also has a line, I’m paraphrasing here, about how forgiving someone else feels as good as being forgiven yourself, a sign that even beyond Isaac’s cool, neatly maintained exterior—and his claims that he’s disinterested in litigating or righting the wrongs of his past—what he’s seeking is absolution.
Together with First Reformed, Schrader is depicting solitary men each on a kind of ideological suicide mission. He also seems to suggest that, in a twisted way, an act of violent self-negation is almost a logical response to the broad, unsolvable structural evils they’re each railing against. A pastor donning an explosives vest will effectively do nothing to curb the worldwide effects of climate change, just as a dishonorably discharged former soldier’s willingness to suffer greatly or even give up his life won’t meaningfully challenge America’s war machine. But if you internalize and individualize the soul-crushing enormity of sins like killing our planet or torturing Iraqi taxi drivers to death, you shove out any room for your own soul to remain. In Taxi Driver, a wizened old driver counsels Bickle that “you get a job, you become the job,” which also holds true in The Card Counter, although the choice to name the film after another vocation is something of a red herring.
“There is a weight a man can accrue. The weight created by his past actions. It is a weight which can never be removed,” Tell says in voiceover. He’s talking about his own past, but he’s also speaking of the moral weight our nation must bear for fighting “terror” with terror. It’s a weight we all must bear, but one felt most acutely by the enlisted men who were following orders, and one that remains deeply present even 20 years after the Sept. 11 attacks. (The movie was released in theaters the weekend of the anniversary to drive that point home.) Filtered through Schrader’s brand of Calvinism-turned-secularism, what we did at Abu Graib can be understood as something like a new original sin for our nation, the stain of which will never be removed, even if America was interested in somehow setting out to do so.
We’re leaving Afghanistan, but the War on Terror is nowhere near over; it’s a forever war not just in a temporal sense but a moral one, a dark mark on our national consciousness that falls in a lineage of all our country’s previous deadly imperial games and forward to those that inevitably lie ahead. Tell can’t escape what he did, and neither can we. We can’t hope for something as precious as forgiveness. The best we can do is to keep moving along between air-conditioned rooms, spending our money on games of chance.