The cards never quite form a winning hand in Paul Schrader’s bleak horror noir.
How much are we responsible for our own actions? To what extent is the path of our lives forged by chance or by choice? And when that path leads to dark and terrible places, how do we cope in the aftermath? Do we rail against the cards we were dealt, or seek instead to control the game?
Poker, as the narration of so many films about professional gambling explain to us, is not a game of chance. In poker you don’t play the cards, you play the player. Blackjack, similarly, is merely a game of numbers for those who know how to count. That’s probably the reason these games are favored by professional gambler and former Army private William Tell (Oscar Isaac) — the name is both the title of an opera about a man who defends his son and fiancée from a sinister military commander, and the term for the visible tics used to intuit a poker player’s weakness.
Tell’s skill at card counting is an act of wrestling a game of chance into submission with cold calculation. Similarly, a turn at the poker table is merely a kind of psychological warfare, something Tell has intimate experience with after being trained in the art of “enhanced interrogation,” AKA torture, by his former commanding officer Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Someone like Tell would understandably be drawn to the games he feels he can control after his nightmarish experience inflicting misery on others, “riding the madness like a wave.”
Tell had plenty of time to learn the intricacies of cards during his tenure at a military prison. “I never thought I was suited to confined spaces,” he tells us in voiceover. But it turns out the routine of prison suited him better than he could have imagined. Now, he has extended that discipline to his life on the outside as a professional gambler. He spends his days driving a circuit of casinos from Delaware to New Jersey and back again. He stays in cheap dive motels and covers every stick of furniture with white sheets he keeps in his suitcase. His skin has the pale, waxy pallor of days spent under the fluorescent lights of gaudy highway casinos, where no window or clock exists to betray the passage of time.
The landscape of this modern American purgatory and the condemned souls trapped within is familiar territory for writer/director Paul Schrader. The frequent Scorsese collaborator’s trademark obsession with sin and despair are on full display in The Card Counter. It’s not long before our emotionally detached protagonist is approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man with a grudge against Major Gordo and a plan for enacting revenge. Seeing his younger self reflected in the eyes of this angry youth, Tell feels compelled to steer Cirk away from a dark path. For that he’ll need funds, which puts him in the sphere of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who connects talented poker players with wealthy backers to compete in tournaments. The trio come to form a shaky new family, one that Tell might use to cobble together something resembling a real life.
With its cold, dispassionate protagonist who drinks whiskey while writing in a journal, haunted by the despair born of a deep societal wrong and seeking redemption through human connection, The Card Counter feels less like a standalone work and more like the discarded trimmings from Schrader’s 2017 masterpiece First Reformed, ground and extruded into a lesser imitator.
Re-teaming with First Reformed cinematographer Alexander Dynan, the film has the faded, drab coloring of an old photo left on a dive hotel room wall. This is no sleek, hip poker movie saturated with the lurid neon of the Vegas strip. These characters live their lives in the greys and browns of dreary winter drives down desolate, unending freeways. The color only pops when the camera is focused on the green felt and red hearts and diamonds of a poker table — when Tell is in his element — or during the film’s centerpiece sequence amongst the riotous technicolor twinkle of a Christmas light display.
The contemplative structure of Schrader’s screenplay is redolent of his earlier noirs, but at times the film veers into outright horror during nightmare flashback sequences set inside the facility where Tell and Gordo tortured prisoners. A double fisheye lens presents twisted and distorted vignettes of abject cruelty filtered through the tight-chested claustrophobia of Tell’s trauma. It’s hard to imagine how anybody could live a normal life after that, and Isaac plays Tell as a man so haunted by what he’s capable of that he allows himself little emotional release, lest the horror overtake him.
Schrader chooses to offset Isaac’s more naturalistic performance by having Haddish and Sheridan adopt a more stilted, theatrical affectation. At times the pair feel more like a Greek chorus than diegetic characters, commenting on Tell’s behavior while standing apart from the machinery of his story. It’s an odd choice that only makes it harder to form a connection with the characters even as they grow emotionally closer to Tell. I suppose Schrader intended their uncanniness to represent Tell’s struggle to bond with others, but in practice it’s mostly just distracting.
Those awkward vibes aren’t helped by the odd sound mix, seemingly taking a page from Tenet’s book by drowning out the dialogue with ambient sound. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Robert Levon Been and composer Giancarlo Vulcano provide the film’s dark electronic score, which merges the ghostlike wails and sighs of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s compositions for The Shining with Thom Yorke’s moody, pop-inflected work on 2018’s Suspiria. The film has no shortage of mood, and Schrader has a knack for composing arresting scenes, but all the cards never quite come together to form a winning hand.
While The Card Counter’s parallels to Schrader’s far-superior First Reformed can’t be denied, the torture sequences bring to mind similar scenes from Scott Z. Burns’ 2019 drama The Report, about the investigation into the CIA’s torture program. Together the two films present a damning glimpse at America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism policies and the lingering anguish they left in their wake, and in some instances continue to inflict. Paul Schrader might be this country’s foremost chronicler of sin, and America’s 21st century transgressions will no doubt give Schrader many more opportunities to stare into the abyss and ask if we can be redeemed.