The Card Counter (2021)

Paul Schrader | 1hr 52min

In a motel room where each piece of furniture has been wrapped tightly in white sheets and all decor has been stashed away, a man sits at a desk and writes. This is William Tell, a small-time gambler as skilled at card counting as he is restrained in flexing this talent. His routine is rigid – move from city to city, win modestly, and then depart without leaving so much as a blip on anyone’s radar. It is a level of dogmatic dedication equal only to Paul Schrader himself, whose flair for constructing formally rigorous character studies of brooding, isolated men stretches all the way back to Taxi Driver, and which has manifested more recently in his theological meditation on human greed and corruption, First Reformed.

Schrader doesn’t falter here in The Card Counter either. With a slightly narrowed aspect ratio, a consistent voiceover meticulously expounding the tricks of each casino game, and a deeply internalised performance from Oscar Isaac, the film becomes a wholly focused examination of regret, self-discipline, and atonement. Having lived a troubled life as both an ex-soldier and ex-convict, William is as complex a figure as any Schrader protagonist. Sin has implanted itself so firmly in his soul that profiting off it is the only way he knows how to survive, but as long as he keeps it quiet and modest, there may be some hope that his environment remains untainted by his presence. In wrapping his motel rooms up in sheets, he similarly ensures that no trace of his inherently iniquitous existence is left behind, and denies himself any chance of worldly pleasure by turning them into bare chambers of his own self-punishment.

This chamber of self-punishment revealing character through stark, minimalist mise-en-scène.

Such minimalistic austerity suits Isaac tremendously, whose quiet, grim performance stands monumentally among the best of the last few years, and certainly in the upper tier of his own career. He is discreet, logical, and observant, gazing out at the world from beneath heavy lids with an intense, unblinking focus. In nightmares and flashbacks that let us into glimpses of his days conducting enhanced interrogation techniques for the US military, Schrader filters the environment through ultra wide-angle lenses that catch everything within a 180-degree field of vision, putting every inch of pain and suffering on full, hyper-sensitive display. “This isn’t about following a manual. It’s about getting answers,” William’s superior, Major John Gordo, instructs him, and within this line Schrader draws a clear distinction between their attitudes towards codes of conduct as means to keep one honest. Though Willem Dafoe is not onscreen a lot in The Card Counter, the weight he carries in this role is substantial, especially as Major Gordo’s presence continues to hang over William as a reminder that his past sins are still very much alive and unatoned for.

Schrader’s ultra wide-angle lenses turning the prison camp into a hyper-sensitive, torturous fever dream.

Notions of forgiveness, revenge, and redemption all swirl around each other in Schrader’s screenplay, particularly as William begins to engage with two new associates who each draw out pieces of his identity he has been trying to suppress. In Cirk, the young, rash son of one of William’s former army comrades, he finds the temptation to dredge up the past as a means to destroy it entirely. In La Linda, a gambling acquaintance, he finds the chance to absolve himself of his own sins, and to once again interact with the world without putting up physical and emotional barriers. There may seem to be a conflict between both goals, but there is also a tenderness to the small, oddball family that forms between them. As William and La Linda wander through the Missouri Botanical Gardens through tunnels of colourful lights on a date, the two are illuminated in a warm glow of love and redemption, and there is similarly something spiritually transcendent in Schrader’s sweeping camera movement upwards, revealing the expanse of this bright, shining corner of the world.

The colourfully lit sequence in the Botanic Gardens is a welcome break from the severity of the rest of the film.
Tracking the back of William’s head through casinos, keep him at a distance from his surroundings like a ghost.

The casino is where William feels most at home though, centred as the one in charge through recurring back-of-head tracking shots that follow him around the space. He haunts the space like a ghost, influencing it just enough to make a difference but never enough to draw attention to himself. The world beyond the poker and roulette tables is ruled out-of-bounds, though when he finally does violently breach that gap Schrader makes the intelligent choice to keep the camera removed, leaving us only to listen to the grisly developments from the next room over. That barrier between William and the rest of the society is no doubt a tough one to break, but Schrader touchingly recognises in the final minutes of The Card Counter that there is still hope even as it remains intact. Sometimes all it takes is a simple recognition from someone on the other side, both parties reaching out in a mutually affectionate gesture of acknowledgement and appreciation.

A lingering close-up of fingers reaching out to touch, held throughout the credits – a hopeful ending to an otherwise austere film.

The Card Counter is currently out in theatres.

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