The Card Counter comes to us from the team of writer/director Paul Schrader and exec producer Martin Scorsese. This is the same team-up that previously yielded Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Still, those were over 40 years ago and Grandmaster Scorsese was in the driver’s seat for both. How does Schrader do in the director’s chair with a movie in 2021?

Pretty damn well, as it turns out.

The eponymous protagonist is Pfc. William Tillich, alias “William Tell”, played by Oscar Isaac. Long story short, Tillich was one of the officers (fictional, thank the gods) implicated in the unspeakably horrific treatment of prisoners under interrogation at Abu Ghraib. It’s a significant story point that when Abu Ghraib blew up into an international scandal, the only ones punished for it were the soldiers in the publicly released photographs. So it was that Tillich went to prison at Leavenworth for eight and a half years while his commanders and all of the higher-ups got off without even a slap on the wrist. We’ll come back to that.

Anyway, Tillich had eight and a half years with nothing but time on his hands, so he learned to count cards. When Tell got out, he started driving all over the country, going from one casino to the next. The man knows everything there is to know about gambling, and he’s good enough to give the audience a few pointers in voice-over with onscreen graphics. To paraphrase, Tell’s big secret is that the House doesn’t care if you count cards, and they don’t even care if you count cards and win — the House only cares if you count cards and win big. So long as he only wins a moderate amount, he’s fine.

Enter La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who runs what’s called a “stable” of poker players. The idea is that for televised poker matches, bigger audiences want bigger stakes, which in turn means bigger bets. Thus people like La Linda match professional poker players with millionaire investors who can afford to put up the money for massive bets. Thus the poker players gamble for more money and the investors get a cut, win/win. The catch is that if the players lose money, the investors will recoup their losses out of the players’ future winnings, potentially putting the players in debt for the rest of their lives.

Tell doesn’t like the idea of being in anyone’s debt. Moreover, he doesn’t like to win big — he’d much rather keep his winnings to modest goals and stay under the radar. Perhaps most importantly, he values his independence. All of which raises so many questions: What is he winning all this money for, why does he play cards all day to the exclusion of anything else, why doesn’t he have any friends or family, and so on.

From the look of things, Tell spends his off-hours in his hotel room with a glass of stiff liquor, working on his diary. I might add that upon arrival at his hotel room, Tell immediately takes down all the artwork, removes the phone and the clock, and covers all the furniture and fixtures with white sheets tied down with twine. This bizarre ritual is never explained.

Anyway, the plot gets going in earnest with the arrival of Cirk Baufort, played by Tye Sheridan. Cirk’s father served with Tillich at Abu Ghraib, and was apparently one of those who didn’t get jail time. Instead, Cirk’s father went on an alcoholic downward spiral, beating his wife and child until his wife left for places unknown and he finally shot himself.

For all of this, Cirk blames Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), a civilian contractor who served as the architect of Abu Ghraib. But because Gordo was a civilian contractor, he was never held to any kind of account for the atrocities committed on his watch. Indeed, the U.S. Government went out of its way to make sure Gordo couldn’t be linked back to the facility. So now, the retired major is running a multimillion-dollar company doing lucrative business in R&D for the military-industrial complex.

In short order, Cirk crosses paths with Tell and shares his life story. Cirk wants Tell to go along with some half-assed revenge scheme in which Gordo is made to suffer the way his prisoners did. Tell emphatically rejects the idea, but he agrees to take Cirk along on his travels between casinos. Why? Well, as previously stated, it’s kind of a mystery as to why Tell does anything he does.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the comic relief. Alexander Babara plays “Mr. USA”, a poker player who dresses in the stars and stripes from head to toe. He’s known for having an entourage (also dressed entirely in hyperjingoistic American imagery, natch) carrying signs and shouting out “USA! USA! USA!” every time Mr. USA wins a hand. The kicker is that Mr. USA isn’t even American — he’s a Ukrainian expatriate. (It’s never made clear as to whether he’s a naturalized citizen, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he is.)

This kind of douchebaggery would be annoying enough as it is, but remember, we’re seeing him from Tell’s point of view. Our protagonist is a man who not only served in the military, but served nearly a decade in military prison for committing literal war crimes in the name of national security. And here’s “Mr. USA”, a man who never served a day with any military, who wasn’t even born in this country, shouting mindless chants and using American imagery to serve his own brand. Couple Tell’s seething outrage with Mr. USA’s inherent punchability and you’ve got a comic relief character who serves as an ideal hate sink while also delivering an implicit thematic point.

At its heart and core, this is a movie about guilt and trauma. And the filmmakers had the heaving spotted balls to make its centerpiece a nonfictional human rights crisis, one of the most perverted and unspeakably graphic crimes against humanity committed by the American military in recent memory. It certainly makes for an effective shorthand, no doubt about that.

Moreover, it’s important to note that so many characters in this film took part in the same crime, inflicted with indelible trauma from the same source, and they all dealt with it in different ways. Though the film never goes into detail regarding Gordo (seriously, Dafoe only has maybe five minutes of screen time in total), we see enough to know that he justifies the atrocities because they were done in the name of national security. Also, Gordo has the luxury of using the ground troops as scapegoats — it’s not his fault for giving the orders, it’s the troops’ fault for choosing to obey the orders. Thus Gordo sleeps soundly at night, his conscience perfectly at ease.

But Cirk’s father and Tell both knew the truth. They knew there could be no justification, no excuse for the terrible things they did. Thus the both of them are completely and totally undone by their trauma, letting it destroy them from the inside out. The difference is that Cirk’s father drowned his sorrow in booze, destroying everything around him until he finally destroyed himself.

By comparison, Tell deliberately keeps himself in isolation. He has no friends or family to harm, he has no home to lose or destroy, and all of his belongings could fit inside his mid-size sedan. He keeps his life strictly regimented, with his diary and gambling as emotional outlets for his trauma. He drinks, yes, but he doesn’t use alcohol for medication like Cirk’s father did. Cirk’s father burned out, while Tell is simply passing his time until he fades away.

Which brings us to Cirk himself. Here we have an example of how suffering begets suffering. Gordo created a monster, and that monster created another one. Yet because Cirk had an admittedly terrible childhood full of domestic abuse, he thinks he can hang with the likes of Tell. Cirk thinks he knows what he’s doing, he thinks he knows what it took to survive Abu Ghraib, and he thinks he’s tough enough to abduct Gordo and make him suffer. He’s delusional. All of Cirk’s information about Abu Ghraib and Gordo only comes secondhand, and that’s not even close enough to cause the kind of damage Tell has seen. For which Cirk should be thankful, but he isn’t.

Cirk is a white-hot ball of rage, so focused on enacting his own brand of justice that he’s not thinking straight. In fact, it’s entirely possible that Cirk would rather die trying to take out Gordo than keep on living in a world where everyone has to suffer for Gordo’s crimes except him. Thus Tell takes it upon himself to try and make Cirk see the error of his ways. Then again, it bears remembering that Tell lost over eight years of his life just for following orders, and those who gave the orders went off scot free. It’s not entirely clear how Tell feels about that or if he’s okay with it — more likely, Tell simply wills himself not to think about it.

As a reminder, this is a movie about gambling. It’s all about risk and reward. How far is pushing too far? How much is betting too much? Is the bigger reward really worth the added scrutiny? Thus we have a movie in which the topics of gambling, revenge, and “enhanced interrogation” all dovetail beautifully. It’s truly inspired work.

So where does La Linda fit into all of this? To start with, she’s the love interest for Tell, and the question of whether he’s even capable of romance at this point is a compelling one. Why exactly is Tell so defiantly independent, and is he ready to move past that?

More importantly, La Linda is the only major character untouched by Abu Ghraib, or indeed much of any visible trauma that we’re aware of. She is the Innocent, a crucial archetype in any crime thriller or revenge story, a character who could potentially redeem our protagonist or be freshly injured in the collateral damage of his sins (see also: Carey Mulligan’s character in Drive, Amy Brenneman’s character in Heat, Madelyn Grace’s character in Don’t Breathe 2, etc.).

Alas, Tiffany Haddish is the weak link of the cast. It’s not that she’s bad, necessarily — Haddish has more than enough attitude to hold the screen and she does a fine job of making the character memorable. Unfortunately, while her chemistry with Isaac is serviceable, it’s still not strong enough to make the potential romance fire on all cylinders. Most importantly, Haddish is a comedian first and foremost. I think Eric Andre put it best when he said that Haddish is “comedy on a cellular level.” That’s not to say she can’t play dramatic roles necessarily, but that’s not where she’s going to do her best work and that disconnect will always be visible in the end result. (see also: Steve Carell)

Willem Dafoe and Tye Sheridan are both playing to their respective wheelhouses here. That said, Sheridan has far more screentime to work with, and thus turns in a much more dynamic performance. Dafoe’s primary job is to let the audience know immediately that this is the bad guy. And it’s Willem Dafoe, so mission accomplished.

Still, this is Oscar Isaac’s show and he runs away with it. The man has a subtle intensity to him that would put Ryan Gosling to shame. Through every scene, Isaac gives the impression of a man deliberately opaque, subtly teasing secrets and plans in such a way that we’re dying to know what’s going through his head. And in those moments when we do finally get a glimpse of Tell’s tortured madness, it’s spellbinding. In particular, Isaac gets a showstopping monologue at the 40-minute mark that should win him Best Actor with the first ballot cast.

Then we have the visuals. It’s not every filmmaker who would set a film primarily in the urban wastelands of New England, only to punctuate it with a dazzling multicolored outdoor light show during a key romantic scene. Kudos are also due to the surreal camera effect used for the flashback scenes, adding an appropriately surreal touch to the disturbing events at Abu Ghraib. Likewise, the sound design is loaded with neat little flourishes, most notably the sounds of raspy breathing to illustrate when Tell is under great stress and can’t afford to show it.

Last but not least, that climax. I realize that adjustment of lighting to accelerate the passage of time in a single shot is nothing new, but it’s beautifully done here. And leaving so much unseen for the sake of horror and suspense is an extremely high-risk/high-reward approach for a climax, but it pays off with this one. Fantastic.

Overall, The Card Counter is a marvelous piece of work. The supporting cast is serviceable, the visuals and sound design are inspired, the script is beautifully layered, the directing is tight, and Oscar Isaac turns in a performance for the ages. This is a solid awards contender, definitely not a film to be missed.

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