Written and directed by Paul Schrader
Imagine yourself at a speaker event: it’s dark, the collective presence of the crowd humming and you’re among them, anonymous. Suddenly, a man at the back jumps up and begins berating the speaker, perhaps everyone, his immense anger evident as he gesticulates and jaws with venom, condemning this, condemning that, his lone voice small but clear from its place somewhere among the sea of faces. Hands grab him and try to force him out, but he continues his verbal assault even as he’s dragged out the room. Once the doors close on him and his outbursts go from muted to gone. The memory lodges itself and won’t let go, but when you later recall the scene, it’s best remembered for the feelings the disturbance evoked rather than the meaning it might have been intending to convey.
The Card Counter, Paul Schrader’s latest, is like that. A fully formed curse exhaled with bitter dread made to remind us of unpunished evils committed by governments and the human cost of those made to do its bidding, but while it’s unsettling for the duration of its runtime, it cannot get beyond its overwhelming (and justified) malice to make a deeper point.
Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, a man who stalks America’s card rooms. By counting cards, gaming the system, and playing the percentages, he makes a tidy living and stays under the radar. Casinos, he says, will allow a few minor transgressions if they stay that way: minor. Tell’s major transgressions are in his past. We find him on the other side of eight year-long stay in military prison following his conviction in the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal. Making no excuses for himself, he lives in anonymity, a pale figure roaming this shadow kingdom of vice.
At least until he comes across Cirk, a former military colleague’s son, who’s hellbent on exacting revenge on the military officer who masterminded the Abu Ghraib’s theater of horrors, turned Cirk’s father into an abusive hulk of a person and then withdrew into well-paid civilian life. Perhaps sensing a similar anger in Cirk that he has learned to live with, William takes him under his own tattered wing.
The Card Counter has the heart of an anvil. Cast in something best described as anti-light, the shadows on Will’s face are withering, the darkness around the card tables impenetrable, and the parking lots of the seedy motels he sleeps in at night feel hopeless. The inside his mind is no different, as terse, matter-of-fact narration sees William recount his methods for cheating like a self-help guide to staying in control, and his commentary on the transgressions of his past (and fellow sinners) are at best laden with defeatist finality. Yes, they belong in hell, but the world was made to believe they don’t.
Angry, but resigned. Schrader’s script doesn’t even bother to describe whether William has a network of people in his life he’s neglecting – it’s obvious this man’s a loner in misery.
Tell’s a Schrader archetype, tracing a straight line to Travis Bickle as a quiet and controlled man of knots with a dark reserve who fixates on a ray of perceived innocence in a world he deems beyond saving. Unfortunately, Schrader loses William in the fog, leaving his motives too nebulous and undefined, so while the action in The Card Counter has punch and rides on Schrader’s cinematic intensity, it’s a bit of a glass cannon, a powerful punch that doesn’t stand up to pressure.
Schrader’s sense for bleak atmosphere and doomsaying remains uncontested, and Oscar Isaac’s dark brow can carry the day should he want to. Together, they tingle the part of your brain that feels keenly, but leaves no ideas to fester. Beyond its seething sentiment and grasp at hollow vindication, The Card Counter doesn’t linger, its vitriol unfortunately mostly powerful in the immediate power of its onrush, like a breath from beyond the grave that gets drowned out by the howling wind on the graveyard hilltop.