“If not for the money, why play?” – “It passes the time,” says professional gambler William Tell (Oscar Isaac) when prompted to justify his string of small stake games. With a teasing ring to it, the response already paints Tell as, on the one hand, brazen and risqué, and on the other, as a scrupulous facade as his unmoving gaze locks with that of his interlocutor, La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). It’s in the controlled steam of their dialogue as a recent couple that Paul Schrader’s latest film, The Card Counter, finds a particular kind of solace for a world of people silently heading towards their own violent collapse.
After spending ten years in a military prison for committing torture crimes, a seemingly reformed man, Tell emerges as the titular card counter, prowling the casinos from state to state where he meets the charming La Linda, who mediates between players and financial backers. Whenever huddled together in the frame, Haddish and Isaac impress with transforming the combustible sexual tension between them, in order to encapsulate the safe harbour of an innocence lost. Their characters’ sparse amorous exchanges, as embedded as they are in the world of gambling, provide a refuge from a corrupted world. That is, only because both of them have had their fair share of crime – some implied, some shown.
However, The Card Counter prefers to peck at the open wounds that have been bleeding all over Schrader’s decades of work – firstly, the tragedy of being irredeemably human, and secondly, the irremediable marks after certain encounters. When we meet Tell, his life already consists of sought after, modest routines that the protagonist himself seems to marvel at. As his consistent voiceover insists, repetitiveness and confinement have become him only as a result of having served jail time. Indeed, his routine now involves low-risk gambling and anonymity, but the total disposal of adrenaline rushes and any emotions whatsoever hint at his long-lasting PTSD after the Abu Ghraib torture photos.
In comes Cirk, played by an endearingly tepid Tye Sheridan, who is a young college dropout eager to avenge his wrecked childhood blaming an enemy that’s common for both him and Tell – the arrogant Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) who walked free as a senior commander in charge of torture methods. Schrader navigates this harrowing thread of recent US history with uncompromising stiffness, as he fleshes out the character of Tell as mildly sociopathic and emotionally debilitated by his unforgivable past. But this impotence is precisely what seems to liberate the protagonist from his own demons, at least in comparison with his bitter road companion, Cirk. While Cirk is unkempt and inert, the card counter is anything but. In this role, Oscar Isaac gives a masterclass in self-restraint, weighing heavily on his presence frame by frame. His steady gaze finds it easy to transfix everyone and no wonder he can effortlessly pull in the camera’s focus to often frame him solely and fully, while slowly zooming in over his existential ponderings as narrated by his own husky voice.
The real name of Bill Tell turns out to be William Tillich, and without a doubt, The Card Counter’s protagonist is named after the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. He was one of the most influential figures in 20th century theology and his works dealt at length with a correlation he proposed between the Christian revelation and the disquiet of human existence. This existentialist thread should come as no surprise, since Paul Schrader himself was raised Calvinist Protestant and many of his works sublimate the efforts of grappling with his own religious background.
Such questions of redemption and death already seem inseparable within the narrative of The Card Counter. This is why the meeting between Cirk and Tell proves to be a decisive moment for both characters, as it is exemplary of the way Schrader conceives human relations as inevitably intimate and often tarnishing. They form an unbreakable bond, as the enigmatic Tell grows fond of Cirk all the while trying to dissuade him from seeking revenge by means of murder. In addition to opposing patient repetitions (Tell) to reactionary violence (Cirk), the film also suggests a generational act of care – not only concern – which reads as more optimistic than it did in Schrader’s previous, First Reformed.
The film’s score, originally written by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Robert Levon Been, mirrors the way this relationship unravels with protracted reverbs in an ambient post-rock setting that is ever-present. Samples of breath, echoes, and expirations elevate the film’s more classical narrative structure to match the flow of resounding chords.
Such dynamics unfolding as a mutual contamination between two people – a contamination of despair that is more nihilistic than cynical – have become trademarks for Schrader’s brooding male protagonists, who are equally doomed, regardless of their social inclusion or exclusion. In order for them to unfurl as protagonists, it’s crucial that they attract one another in a shared gravitational field. Once paired with another soul, these characters are forced to face themselves fully and unapologetically, as for example Tara in The Canyons or John LeTour in Light Sleeper. William Tell, like other Schrader characters, undertakes personal ascesis as a form of punishment, well knowing that forgiveness and sacrifice can only come hand in hand.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. Focus Features will release The Card Counter in U.S. theaters on September 10.
Photo courtesy of Focus Features