With THE CARD COUNTER, writer/director Paul Schraeder returns to his favorite themes of sin and redemption. This is no tidy tale of a fall from grace precipated by a rash decision or a moment of weakness. We have at the center a flawed man with dark impulses that he cannot control once they have been unleashed by a chain of events in which he was swept up. Schraeder pits the failings of society against the individual conscience, the role of free will against group think, and the desire for forgiveness that can never quite be quenched.
Our protagonist is William Tell (Oscar Isaac), an ex-con and current itinerant gambler playing for moderate stakes at casinos around the country. He is a master of counting cards in blackjack, allowing him to keep afloat by never winning more than the casinos are willing to lose. Solitary, methodical, and eccentric, his only interest is in playing cards and being absolutely free to travel where and when he wants. He is, as he explains in the ongoing narration, an American kid. Before the end of the film, he will have become the case study of what that means on a mythic level, for good and for ill.
Into his solitary wanderings appears La Linda (Tiffany Haddish lighting up the screen in a nuanced performance). A nodding acquaintance from casino poker games they have played in the past, she offers him a shot at the big time, with financial backers who will stake him to the World Series of Poker, and the potential to earn more money in one night than he is currently making in a year. William demurs, until a chance meeting with a former colleague’s son, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), slowly rouses him from his stupor of isolation and complete order, into a warrior for justice that might just salve his soul, even if he is sure it is beyond saving.
As the story unfolds, the reasons for William’s incarceration are spelled out in hallucinogenic sequences tracked with a fish-eye lens through Abu Ghraib. There as a private, William was taken under the wing of Major Gordo (Willem Dafoe) and trained in the enhanced interrogation techniques that sent him, but not Gordo, to prison for eight-and-a-half years. It is the zeal with which William took to his work that is the reason for his self-punishment, and the carefully presented affect of complete lack of emotion.
Isaac, working to perfection with Schrader’s penchant for long takes and slow, deliberate cuts, is a compelling presence, playing the suppressed guilt against the outward show. Even before we learn the reasons for his obsession for privacy and for draping the furniture in his cheap motel rooms with sheets meticulously secured with twine, the sense of inner turmoil is palpable, creating a suspense all the more potent for being inchoate. When he does finally crack, and to only a tiny degree while telling Cirk about what happened in Abu Ghraib, it is devastating. Yet, with the camera tight on his face, Isaac barely changes expression, with only a slight change in his voice’s timbre, and his eyes becoming red with the tears to which he desperately wants to surrender, but dares not for what else it will unleash. The character will never again show such vulnerability. He doesn’t need to. It will inform everything else he does.
There are many larger themes at work here, and certainly we are meant to see the allegories in play (Dafoe has never been more of a gargoyle straight from Hell), but the focus remains fixed on the thwarted lives of these three on whom the American Dream has turned with a vengeance, leaving them each to cope and compensate with varying degrees of success. This is an intimate film about wrestling with personal responsibility in situations not of one’s own making. Intelligently written and directed, THE CARD COUNTER is Old Testament in its judgments, New Testament in its compassion, overwhelming in its impact.