The Following Review Contains Spoilers*
“It’s all the same. It’s repetitive. I really feel like it’s going nowhere. You go around and around til you work things out.” … … … “How’s that going for you?”
Admittedly—and somewhat famously in specific circles— writer/director Paul Schrader has repeatedly stolen the ending of one of his all-time favorite films, Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket.” In Mark Cousins‘ historic documentary saga, “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” he talks about lifting the ending from said Italian classic and applying it to his film “American Gigolo.” But when Schrader was later working on an artistic successor to it, entitled “Light Sleeper,” he came to the realization that he’d harnessed the power of “Pickpocket’s” ending too soon—and he’d put it on the wrong film. Near three decades later, the man still finds himself circling back to Bresson’s transcendental punctuation, and with “The Card Counter”—a character who could perhaps only be embodied by a performer with the charisma and range of an actor among lead star Oscar Isaac’s caliber—the film scholar turned director has finally sharpened the ending he has long been so obsessed with, and the result is arguably his magnum opus.
Routine and regiment. Two words that can describe both Schrader’s creative manifestations and Isaac’s character of William Tell (perfect name; and, of course, it’ isn’t possibly a real one. “My name is Henry… Crinkle”) – a former black site torturer turned lone gambler. A man of modest goals, Tell explains his process and reasoning—Schrader using his trademark voiceover to place audiences inside the wounded headspace of his wandering soul—games like Blackjack are easier to win because they’re dependent of events of calculated chance, of patience that affects probability. Never seated at a table long enough to arouse suspicion from the pit boss, Tell drives from motel to casino, casino to motel—covering every inch of furniture with clean white sheets, transforming a living space of leisure into a comforting jail cell.
An expert at extorting the limits of punishing oneself, Schrader reveals Tell’s literal past traumas via warped nightmares—long, wide-angle tracking shots revealing the horrors he and other enlisted men inflicted on America’s so-called enemies, being trained in the art exacting truth by Colonel John Gordo (Willem Dafoe); a man fed up with the “pussification” of our country (if I’m not mistaken, this was a word Schrader was called out for using on Facebook). But when word got out of Gordo and his team’s detestable tactics, Tell and other men in a publicized photograph took the fall, while their superiors walked away without a scratch on their resume. Giving Global Security Conference, Power Point presentations in hotel ballrooms across the nation, Tell’s former commanding officer brands himself around the idea: “Recent Revelations in Interrogation and Truthfulness” of course it doesn’t only refer to the interrogated.
Wandering into one of Gordo’s lectures at a casino he happens to be playing in, a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan)—sporting a shirt with what looks like a ray gun reading: Pew Pew Tactics—spots a commonality within Tell’s eyes, slipping him his phone number. The pair rendezvous at the bar, and Cirk informs the card counter that his father also tortured so-called terrorists under the watchful eye of Gordo—having since killed himself, and now Cirk has a plan to maim and murder the man responsible.
Recognizing the violent point of no return, Tell makes a mission out of moving Cirk on from his obsession—to get the boy back on his feet, before he shoots the rest of his life in the foot, breaking his usual rule of not entering high stakes poker tournaments in the process (don’t ask him about potential t-shirt sponsorships). Partnering with gambling agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), Tell never takes off his stoic mask but has clearly found direction for the first time since he can remember. “You woke something in me,” he says to one of them, though he means both.
While, yes, Schrader has repeatedly crafted onerously similar framework’s, “The Card Counter” feel so artistically effortless it’s like the writer knew he got dealt Pocket Aces. Akin to Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” it’s effectively a re-telling/remix that cuts through pure aesthetic—the existential ideas and essence of the filmmaker’s morbid fascination with self-flagellating punishment distilled down to semiotic symbology made literal through personification and self-imposed patterns of physical isolation and emotional sabotage. “You got to use memory tricks—each as some kind of peculiarity. It keeps you sharp.” Dafoe’s John LeTour meditates in “Light Sleeper.” This same mantra has been adopted by Tell to avoid remembering terrible acts committed. “The body remembers. Stores it all up.” Tell used his prison sentence to hone a photographic memory, able to pick any card out of the deck after fanning in out once.
“Time as technique,” is how Schrader sees cinematic expression. With “The Card Counter,” style turns transcendent by harmonizing punishment with purification. Forgiveness is forgiveness, and there’s little point in trying to distinguish whether we apply the word to ourselves or others. Neither is painless, nor possible without some sort of purge. Lonesome aberrations can only take the soul so far. When one wakes up to a world where typing an address into Google Earth can inspire an odyssey of revenge, how can the heart believe absolution is a tangible thing still there to be touched?
“The days go on and on… they don’t end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.” – Travis Bickle, “Taxi Driver”