Director – Paul Schrader – 2021 – US – Cert. 15 – 112m
Tormented by internal demons relating to his activities in Abu Ghraib, for which he’s served a prison sentence, a card player bides his time on the professional gambling circuit – out in cinemas on Friday, November 5th
I’m an enormous admirer of Paul Schrader as critic, screenwriter and director. I could go through the component parts of this film and extol the virtues of most of them. And yet, somehow, adding all these elements together the end result here is less than satisfying. I left the preview theatre in shock trying to understand what had gone wrong. Was it the film or was it me?
You could have guessed it was Schrader directing one of his own screenplays from the opening shots. In American Gigolo (1980), it’s various angles on the gigolo’s car. In First Reformed (2017) , it’s various angles on the pastor’s church building. Here, it’s various angles on the card counter’s cards spread out on the green beige surface of a playing table.
Self-styled William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is travelling round the US making money from card games having taught himself to read cards whilst in military prison (the USDB in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas – it’s namechecked but not explained in the film and I had to look it up). He checks into hotel rooms where he covers everything (tables, chairs, lamp stands) in bedsheets from his suitcase. At night he’s tormented by extreme wide angle dreams of former C.O. Gordo (Willem Dafoe) from his time serving in the military at notorious Iraq detention camp Abu Ghraib, where Gordo tells him he has a gift for that camp’s horrific brand of interrogation and torture, something Tell’s voice-over confirms to be the case.
These days Gordo is operating a lucrative security business and Tell by accident or design (it’s not clear) is leaving a Gordo lecture extolling the virtues of facial recognition software when he’s accosted by unkempt young man “Kirk with a ‘C’” – Cirk (Tye Sheridan) who gives him his contact details. Cirk has his own set of personal demons related to his late father’s role in the military and Tell decides to take him under his wing, dragging the boy along on his card playing travels.
Alongside this, Tell is spotted and recruited by La Lynda (Tiffany Haddish), a gambling agent who runs a stable of skilled Texas Poker players to make money for investors. Essentially a lone wolf, Tell is initially unsure about this.
So it seems he has acquired a surrogate family of sorts.
The problem is the central metaphor. Poker is all about reading the cards and waiting for the right moment to make a move and a killing. Tell’s life is in a state of limbo, so as he goes about playing card games at casino tables or covering the furniture of his latest hotel room in blankets, we’re essentially waiting for something to happen rather than watching him make something happen. Unlike the more typically pro-active protagonists of, for example, Taxi Driver (screenwriter: Schrader, director: Martin Scorsese, 1976) or First Reformed, this doesn’t make for particularly compelling viewing as you’re sitting through a seemingly unending series of card games to no obvious purpose (beyond him playing to win).
In the final reel, Tell does indeed become more pro-active, but by this point the audience’s goodwill has been exhausted and they’ve long since ceased to care. Perfect casting, top notch performances, superb cinematography, production design and just about everything else can’t get round this problem sinking the film. That’s a tragedy, because its vision of Abu Ghraib as a glorified virtual reality experience comes closer to compellingly depicting the horror of recent years’ US sanctioned torture than any other film outside of grim but brilliant documentary Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008) to which this film gives a brief nod in talking about those military abusers who appeared in photographs being punished while those personnel shrewd enough to keep away from the cameras got away with their crimes.
The Card Counter is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, November 5th.