The nightmarish sights of Abu Ghraib punctuate The Card Counter, the latest long, dark night of the masculine soul from writer-director Paul Schrader. The glimpses we get look as warped as the images you might see in a funhouse mirror — minus the fun, of course. Equipped with a disorienting ultra-wide VR lens, the camera takes us on a tour of these hellish environments, drifting through grubby cells where naked prisoners crouch in helpless terror, caked with their own filth. At one point one of their American captors (played by Oscar Isaac) enters the frame, his figure so distorted that he appears to be cut off at the knees. Nothing else in the movie is shot like this; what we’re seeing is visual deviation as well as a moral abomination. These images are the long-ago memories that continue to haunt Isaac’s character — he’s the titular card counter, a professional gambler who calls himself William Tell. Years before he acquired that amusing pseudonym, he was a solider stationed at Abu Ghraib, where he participated in the torture and interrogation of prisoners. Eventually he was court-martialed and incarcerated at Leavenworth, a rather nicer prison than his previous outpost; finding a strange comfort in life behind bars, he read books, broadened his mind and learned to count cards. Now back on the outside, William spends his days hopping from casino to casino, playing just skillfully enough to bear the house without cleaning it out. The routine suits him and keeps him busy. His demons have never left, but he’s holding them at bay.
The solitary, existentially tormented man in a room is undeniably Schrader’s most indelible authorial signature, both a defining image and idea in one. And Schrader being Schrader, he looks at William’s demons and attempts to allure them to the surface, to put this gravely conflicted antihero through his own intensely personal yet oddly familiar stations of the cross. Like some of the filmmaker’s other charismatically brooding sinners — Willem Dafoe’s crisis-ridden drug dealer in Light Sleeper, Ethan Hawke’s climate-conscious minister in First Reformed — William likes to sit alone in his room at night, nursing a glass of booze and pouring his dark thoughts into a handwritten diary from which he reads a few rich, aching excerpts. But for all these kindred spirits, William also stands apart, as does Isaac in one of his richest, most quietly haunted performances.
Like any good card player, William is an astute observer of details, and Isaac’s coolly magnetic gaze has a way of heightening your own powers of concentration. You take in every detail of his appearance — the flashes of gray in his slick black hair, the crisp shirt-and-tie-and-leather-jacket ensembles — and are by turns seduced, intrigued and disturbed by the picture of self-imposed order that he projects. Whenever William checks into a new motel, he meticulously wraps every piece of furniture in white sheets, draining the room of color. There’s something monastic about the result, as if William were re-creating his prison cell, or maybe just literally blotting out the messiness of his past. In doing so, he seems to be trying to excise the mess and distractions of the material world, to keep it in check and under control, a ritual that serves the character and also a director who remains a kind of minimalist even at his pulpiest.
In another form of devotion, Schrader remains enshrouded in his own sense of routine, his own tropes; which will strike his critics as repetitive and his admirers as suitably ritualistic. But the filmmaker, coming off the remarkable career high of First Reformed, is skilled enough to find fresh emotional notes and subtle thematic variations in his template. There is something faintly amusing about the way Schrader assigns his characters their specific obsessions and neuroses, as if he were pulling topic cards at random out of a hat, but he gives those topics both a thick dramatic weight and a knotty ethical consideration. He has a lot on his mind here — the history of the Hollywood gambling picture, the lingering moral stain of America’s post-9/11 war crimes — but he also balances the harrowing odyssey with crackling moments of wit, levity and romance. And in this he more than succeeds. The characters we meet along the way may fit archetypal slots, but they are inhabited with a conviction that aligns to be taken seriously. As William makes his way across the flat, depressing landscapes of America’s casino belt, he encounters two people who will change his life forever. One is a gambling agent, La Linda (a mixed Tiffany Haddish), who’s impressed by William’s poker skills and tries to persuade him to join her generously (and anonymously) funded stable of players. From the way William and La Linda lock eyes and trade quips, it’s clear that their interest may go beyond the strictly professional, a dramatic chip that Schrader waits to cash in at just the right moment.
The other key figure is a recent college dropout, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), whose name is pronounced “Kirk” and whose mind is consumed with revenge. Cirk’s father, like William, was once stationed at Abu Ghraib, where both men were trained by a sadistic superior, Maj. John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). While William went to prison and Cirk’s father ultimately took his own life, Gordo managed to slip away and reinvent himself as a private security contractor. Now Cirk wants William to help bring Gordo to justice, a scheme that the shrewd gambler sees for the terrible idea it is. Hoping to dissuade Cirk, William takes him under his wing and drags him along on his casino tour. He also accepts La Linda’s invitation to the big leagues, hoping that his winnings will help the kid get back on his feet. A friendship blossoms, nourished by Isaac and Sheridan’s winning rapport. For William, Cirk is a source of affection and mild exasperation, but also an opportunity to do some good in a world he’s made demonstrably worse. But Cirk is also the latest warning of many in Schrader’s long, erratic and never-uninteresting filmography that there are few things more dangerous or crushing than a wayward young soul in need of rescue.
In tracing this idea to its grim conclusion, The Card Counter doesn’t escape a certain sense of overt neatness. Schrader’s moral inquiry hinges, as usual, on a semi-successful emulsion of narrative contrivance and philosophical seriousness. Sometimes a line will land a little too emphatically, especially when it’s trying to seem off-the-cuff. Consider it all part of the movie’s buy-in; it’s worth it. Scene by scene, it pulls us into a world that coheres not just through plotting and dialogue, but through the sharp rhythms of Benjamin Rodriguez Jr.’s editing, the sometimes overly clean digital, othertimes beautifully textured qualities of Alexander Dynan’s images and the thick, musty score from Robert Levon Been. Schrader achieves a richly atmospheric portrait of the poker tournament circuit, with a Bressonian sense of cold, banal precision. They’re places where the whir of roulette tables is interrupted by the whoops and hollers accompanying some of the game’s more flamboyant celebrities; places where William has locked himself into a stabilizing inertia; a sarcophagus of the same cards, same faces, same garish rooms. But William also seems to be no less trapped by an outdoor suburban wasteland of strip malls and motel swimming pools; the America in whose name he committed unspeakable crimes looks none too beautiful itself. Time seems to stand still in casinos and in Tell’s day-to-day, with their absence of windows and clocks, an eternal present that suits Tell’s routine, his hushed conversations and his walkabouts through carpeted passages where he’s clocked by the gliding camera. It all flows and it keeps on flowing until the blood inevitably spills.
The Card Counter isn’t the big-betting thriller that’s being pushed as commercially. There are genre elements, as usual with Schrader, including moments of feverish tension and blasts of violence mingled in with the horror and the romance. Schrader likes playing with film form but he isn’t interested in conventional heroes and beats, and even when he hits familiar notes he does so with his own destabilizing rhythm and pressure. The only genre that he works in now is the one he’s been refining for decades, with its smooth and jagged edges, blessed and beautiful women, soulful meditations and eruptions of violence. It’s with this film that he also reminds us that beneath his austere rhythms and fatalistic journeys beats the heart of possibility, someone who sees in love the possibility of risk and redemption. The voices and faces change, but the Paul Schrader Experience couldn’t be more alive than ever. In rather mesmerizingly bruising fashion, The Card Counter is an invigoratingly monotonous and disquieting look at the traumatized spirit and flesh of a lonely soul.
The Card Counter is playing in Theaters nationwide