The Card Counter

The Card Counter Film Review

Directed by: Paul Schrader 

Written by: Paul Schrader

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Tiffany Haddish and Willem Dafoe

Casinos are traditionally places of excess. Bright sparkling lights, neon signs, blackjack and poker tables as far as the eye can see, the continuous din of slot machines, the roars of the clients that win big and the gasps from on-lookers as they witness someone losing a fortune. These are the sights and sounds we associate with casinos, especially on a filmic level. None of these sensory cues are present in Paul Scrader’s The Card Counter. The casinos we witness are far from the ones we usually see on film and far from the glitzy hustle and bustle of Las Vegas. In The Card Counter we visit casinos off the beaten track, casinos that are silent, austere and sometimes poorly lit. 

These characteristics make these locations perfect for our protagonist William (Oscar Isaac) to inhabit. He has seemingly committed himself to a version of purgatory. After learning to count cards in a military prison, William drifts around to different casinos across the country, winning relatively small amounts of money so as to fly under the radar of casino managers. After spending all day playing cards he retires to a modest motel room at night, covers everything in white sheets and works on his diary which doubles as the film’s narration. William believes he hasn’t been sufficiently punished for the war crimes he has committed - the horrendous torture of detainees in Abu Ghraib prision. He has therefore pledged himself to an almost ascetic life, save for gambling and the occasional double Johnny Walker neat. 

He is waiting for redemption or damnation, he is waiting for something to happen. William is therefore the most recent iteration of Schrader’s ‘God’s lonely man’ characters, originating of course with Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976). William also shares a lot in common with a more recent character, Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) from First Reformed (2017). Travis and Ersnt also wrote in diaries. Travis and Ernst also happen across a person younger than themselves they think they can save. For William this person comes in the form of a transient young man named Cirk (Kirk with a ‘C’) played by Tye Sheridan. Cirk’s father has committed the same heinous crimes as William. He returned home from the Iraq war, broken, abusive and suicidal. 

Cirk blames not only his father, but his father’s superiors for his tragic and abusive up-bringing. He has located Major John Gordo (William Dafoe), who trained his father and William in ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. His plan is to get retribution. William advises him that these kinds of thoughts will ‘eat you up inside’- he knows because he has had them too. William takes Cirk under his wing. He becomes his keeper. But how long will Cirk be willing to live this monotonous life, devoid of purpose? 

The Card Counter sees Paul Schrader, now 75, continue a late period career renaissance. It is a visually arresting and singular film. The camera glides slowly with William through the casino floor, sits meditatively with him at the blackjack table. The slow-fades employed in the film are reminiscent of the films of Carl Therdore Dreyer and Robert Bresson- particularly Diary of a Country Priest (1951)- also a heavy influence over First Reformed. William is a restless sleeper, the camera slowly zooms to his eyes shut tight but in frantic REM. We cut to nightmarish visions of Abu Ghraib and all the unspeakable depravity that went on in there, an ultra-wide lens depicts a disoriented and hellish space.  

The Iraq war, which served as the reason for Ernst’s grief in First Reformed is brought fully to the surface in this film. The audience must reckon with the awful sins William has perpetrated in the past with the stoic charisma they see on screen. Is William deserving of redemption? Is damnation deserved? These are Schrader’s essential questions, while also making the point that the powers that be, here personified by Major Gordo, got off scot-free. William’s surname, Tillich, is symbolic. Presumably named after philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich, who was an early detractor of Hitler and the Nazi party. Scrader is drawing an obvious line between what went on in Abu Ghraib and what happened in the internment camps during World War II. 

Ashamed of his identity, William Tillich goes by William Tell, a name that also contains symbolic weight. His namesake being a Swiss folk hero who sought bloody revenge on the person who endangered his son’s life. The Card Counter’s Tell is faced with a similar situation, trusting him out of his self-inflicted limbo, but will it lead to his redemption or perdition?