Header Image: William Tell (Oscar Issac) journals in a dimly lit hotel room with furniture covered in white sheets. A bottle of bourbon and an empty glass are within his reach in the foreground.
Do you go to the movies because you want to contemplate how to live in the world? That would be the central question to consider if you’re trying to decide whether to see The Card Counter (2021). Writer-Director Paul Schrader offers the latest iteration of the “God’s lonely man” archetype that he’s revisited throughout his career, starting with Taxi Driver in 1976. This continued in American Gigolo (1980), Light Sleeper (1992), Bringing Out The Dead (1999) and, most recently, First Reformed (2017).
In The Card Counter, Schrader offers Oscar Isaac’s William Tell, whose name already provides several on-the-nose interpretations, evoking both the 13th century marksman who was forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head for defying a tyrannical ruler, and the “tell” of a gambler, a tick that calls their bluff. Tell is a well-dressed and tight-lipped man, whose stiff military posture accentuates Isaac’s suave sexuality and wide “ethnic hips.” Tell is a gambler, but a precise and stoic one. He doesn’t aim to win big, but uses his titular card-counting skills to eke out an existence passing from one anonymous space to another.
It’s no mistake that The Card Counter opened in theaters (at AMC Madison 6 and Marcus Point) as close as possible to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Tell arrived at his current profession after a stint in prison for his role as a torturer in Abu Ghraib, and the crime of allowing himself to be photographed during an interrogation session. His possible redemption arrives by chance, wandering into a conference where he re-encounters Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), his superior officer in Abu Ghraib, and the man who led Tell’s soul to be fully possessed by The Great Satan of the American Empire. While Tell was trapped with his own thoughts in prison, Gordo escaped unscathed to lead others down the same dark path.
Tell also meets another wayward soul with a grudge against Gordo: Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of one of Tell’s fellow torturers. Cirk’s life was completely derailed by his father’s guilt. Cirk has a lofty goal that he has little hope of achieving on his own in capturing Gordo and subjecting him to the same torture he once inflicted upon others. Cirk tries to enlist Tell in his quest. Meanwhile, Tell checks his ambition and invites Cirk to accompany him as a companion to squeeze out winnings from small regional casinos. Adopting him as a surrogate son, Tell hopes to win enough money for Cirk so he start a new life and forget his plans for revenge. Tell further extends beyond his comfort zone as he allows himself to be staked by a backer found through La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). She rounds out their makeshift road family, drawing Tell further out of his own head through the loins.
So many of Schrader’s films engage in his own meditations with his isolated loner characters, who often have the habit of struggling through their own painful place in the world by journaling through their long dark nights of the soul. It’s hard not to read a little into this common trait that Schrader is imbuing his characters with a little of himself. Schrader has certainly had his share of struggles, be they semi-public embarrassment of being dumped by Nastassja Kinski, difficult stars, losing control of his films to producers, or most recently, being put in posting jail for being too online. He seems to draw strength from continuing to pose big questions to himself and others, even if they aren’t en vogue (which he’s admitted while offering a different take than his longtime collaborator Martin Scorsese on whether Marvel movies are cinema). He draws on art from as disparate time periods as Robert Bresson, Michelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam and the “Damn, bitch, you live like this?” meme to try to investigate how fallen people can carry on in a fallen world.
Trying to redeem someone is a laudable goal, but of course the person has their own idea about their life outside of the story arc. After all, aren’t we all just messy bitches trying to live in our own way in any way we can?
There’s more where this came from.
If you enjoyed this story, sign up for the Tone Madison email newsletter. It’s the best way to keep up with our work, and it hits your inbox every Thursday morning, complete with our special Microtones column and more.