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The Card Counter

Paul Schrader makes good movies.

He also makes movies that are almost invariably about the bad feelings of damaged men, from Taxi Driver (1976), which Schrader wrote, through Mishima (1985) to First Reformed (2017). His latest, The Card Counter, is not much different. It is also good. It is also about the bad feelings of a damaged man.

That man is William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a drifting gambler, wandering through the hideous twilights of innumerable identical casinos, counting cards for modest winnings. At nights he drinks bourbon and hand-writes a journal in plain motel rooms. He turns down the opportunity to be bankrolled by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), an agent for a group of investors that back high-stakes poker players.

And he has a horrific past: during the American occupation of Iraq he was a Private First Class at Abu Ghraib prison, and was a participant in the torture and abuse that took place there. When the abuse was made public, Tell went to prison, while – of course – his superiors went on to lucrative consultancy careers.

One of these superiors is Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the consultant psychologist that devised the torture programme, whom Tell discovers speaking at a conference of military contractors. At the conference, Tell meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of another Abu Ghraib soldier, who is devising a revenge plot against Gordo.

It’s a good-looking, well-wrought, surprisingly snappy noir thriller. Like the best noir thrillers, its anonymous locales spiral out toward global malevolence. And while it’s certainly familiar thematic ground for Schrader, there’s nothing wrong with having a consistent set of concerns. In fact, one salutary effect of Schrader’s long-term preoccupations is that we get to see his perennial themes of guilt, shame, and redemption refracted through the shifting times. In the 70s and 80s, he made films about guilt and shame in the 70s and 80s. Now he makes films about guilt and shame now.

His contemporaneity is not all that common. First Reformed is the only American fiction film I can think of that reckons seriously with climate change now, and not in some imagined future. It’s also an outright, Taxi Driver-level masterpiece. But even certified non-masterpiece The Canyons (2013), which Schrader directed from a script by Bret Easton Ellis, and which could justly claim to be one of the ugliest films ever made, spoke directly to its regrettable era.

American imperial guilt of the kind The Card Counter addresses is certainly more common narrative fare than First Reformed’s climate anguish. The Card Counter’s most recent ancestor is Scott Z. Burns’ The Report (2019), about the writing of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture. It’s a decent film about a heroic act, but marred by the delusional exceptionalism that usually accompanies American movies about American atrocities. It ends by trying unconvincingly to declare that America is above doing what the film has just proved it did.

The Card Counter, too, is about the feelings of the torturers, and not the afflictions of the tortured. But it at least avoids The Report’s revolting cognitive dissonance. As George C. Scott explains in another Schrader bad-feelings classic, 1979’s Hardcore, we don’t get to just choose to redeem ourselves. In Schrader’s strict moral universe, William Tell lives a self-denying life because it is what he deserves. The Card Counter does not ruminate upon what the torture at Abu Ghraib might mean for the state of the American soul. It says: Be honest with yourself. You know what it means. As Tell says, Major John Gordo saw the potential in me.

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