The real art of winning is knowing when the moment is right: knowing when to fold when you could still win. To be able to start all over again another day, at the next game.
William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is one such artist. As a card player, he drives from one casino to the next. His opponents may hide their faces behind sunglasses, make a noise in baseball outfits and with entourage – Tell is fine in a gray shirt, black tie, dark trousers and jacket. When he plays, his left hand is usually in the crook of his right arm. His poker face always looks the same whether at the table, in the car or in his motel room. He never stays in the casino hotels because he knows very well that his system only works as long as he remains anonymous. William Tell learned to count the cards. He had eight and a half years to do it, that’s how long he was in a military prison.
Only very late in Paul Schraders The Card Counter falls the sentence around which the entire film revolves. “Whether someone else forgives you or you forgive yourself feels very similar, there’s no point in distinguishing one from the other.” It’s Tell’s only happy moment. In fact, it’s just a thought, put into words by his inner voice, which accompanies the film as an off-commentary. It’s a moment when another life would be possible because he met La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a mysterious broker who represents a group of anonymous investors and who persuades him to participate in the Poker World Championships in Las Vegas. because The Card Counter but since it’s not over yet, you know that Tell still has to forgive himself. That the guilt he has brought upon himself must be atoned for. And that he has to get up from the gaming table to do one last thing.
Torture specialist in Abu Ghraib
Because in one of the casinos, Tell met the young Cirk (Tye Sheridan). The boy in the baggy T-shirt introduces himself as “Kirk with a C”, even more important than the spelling of his name is the killing – but not the death – of the man he hates abysmal: the torture specialist Gordo (Willem Defoe ), who instructed his father, who was stationed in Iraq, in the appropriate technology in Abu Ghraib. The family trauma that he caused after his return home haunts Cirk to this day. Just like the question of who was held accountable after the torture scandal became public: the soldiers who could be seen in the pictures, but not the backers like Gordo. “It wasn’t the apples that were bad,” Cirk says, “it was the box they came out of.”
Paul Schrader is – one can confidently say so – one of the most important film authors in US cinema. Now it is easy to say that Schrader has been working on his great range of topics related to guilt, atonement and forgiveness in different ways in screenplays and his own directorial work for fifty years, which is why no film critic wants to do without his long-standing collaboration with Martin Scorsese and his script to Taxi Driver to mention. Such a view, which focuses primarily on the motif of catharsis in Schrader’s work, is of course valid, but often overlooks the important chronicler of contemporary America he is. That’s how it is The Card Counter obviously not a poker movie in the style of The Cincinnati Kid, the scenes at the gaming table are staged so en passant, as if they hardly interested Schrader. And the story of this film, that much is certain from the start, will not be decided by gambling. Tell isn’t addicted to the game, it’s keeping him from doing something else. It calms his anger. “A lot of our anger can be explained by the fact that we’re a young country,” Schrader said in an interview with the author of this article at a performance of his play The Cleopatra Club. “We have never been occupied by any other power, we have never known great famines. We still think we should be like we were a hundred years ago, but that’s not the case. And we’re not mature enough to admit it’s our own fault.”
So who is this angry American who always blames others? Who is to blame for the crimes of William Tell? The former interrogation specialist Tell was also in Abu Ghraib – that much can be revealed. And he knows Gordo. Personally. Schrader makes no secret of this that would slowly come to light. For him – and for us – just a few images are enough to depict the horror when Tell is once again overtaken by a nightmare. One does not know how it came about that this man, the angry American, committed such an act. And that is what is so threatening about this idea. The Card Counter is a look into a barrel full of rotten apples, so black and abysmal that you can no longer see the bottom.
The Card Counter Paul Schrader USA 2021, 111 Minutes