“The Card Counter,” the new film from “Taxi Driver” screenwriter Paul Schrader, now playing in theatres, is less concerned with cheating at cards than it is with the heavy conscience of the main character.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a man with a past. Ex-military, he’s haunted by his time as an enhanced interrogator at Abu Ghraib. These days he’s constantly on the move, trying to out run his past, travelling from town to town working as a professional gambler and card counter, a skill he picked up during a stint at Leavenworth.
His past catches up with him, however, when Cirk (Tye Sheridan) makes the connection between his late father, who was driven to violence and suicide by memories of his time as a torturer, William and their commanding officer Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Cirk has a vendetta. He blames Gordo for his father‘s death, and plans revenge.
William sees the messy situation as a chance for redemption. With the help of financial backer LaLinda (Tiffany Haddish), William attempts to right the wrongs of his past, clear his conscience and send Cirk off on a better path.
“The Card Counter” is an austere, intense movie.
Schrader’s trademark anguish permeates every frame. Isaac plays William as a man who has numbed himself to the horrors of his past by adopting a controlled, methodical way of life. It’s his way of reducing memories of “the noise, the smell, the violence” at bay, but he is tormented, and Isaac’s careful performance reveals a man aware that his guilt could overflow at any time. It would’ve been easy to play him as comatose, shut down to real life after the pain he willfully inflicted on others, but Isaac gives him life.
His only way out of the psychic hell his memories put him through on a nightly basis is through helping Cirk to ease the young man’s pain. There are echoes of “Taxi Driver” throughout. Like Travis Bickle, William uses violence to “rescue” an innocent, but unlike Mr. You Talkin’ To Me, William also has a sweet side. His relationship with LaLinda is warm and Haddish’s performance helps show us William’s human side.
Schrader fills “The Card Counter” with not-so-subtle social commentary. One of William’s rivals on the gambling circuit is Mr. U.S.A. (Alexander Babara), a loud and proud player dressed in red, white and blue. He’s an empty shell, a braying show-off whose presence is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. He’s the polar opposite of the self-contained William, a man who has seen the horrors his country endorsed and knows of the personal cost involved. The allegory isn’t delicate but it does feel timely and ripped from the headlines.
“The Card Counter” is another of Schrader’s looks into the soul of, as he called Travis Bickle, “God’s lonely man.” He tempers the darkness with wry humour and even a touch of romance, but make no mistake, trauma lies at the heart of the storytelling, resulting in a tautly told morality play that encompasses the war on terror and the personal cost of military action.