Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Card Counter has a stacked hand


Sometimes, I want a movie that affords escapism. Something full of bright colors, cathartic moments, and hope for a better tomorrow. And sometimes I want the opposite. I want, dare I say even need, a movie that recognizes the horrors of the world. Rather than offer solutions to problems too big for tidy resolutions, such films convey the shrieking frustration of living in a world where inhumane actions go on without anyone batting an eye. Much like he did with the 2018 film First Reformed, writer/director Paul Schrader has yet again delivered the type of feature that captures anger at ongoing injustices with The Card Counter

This may be the most American movie of the year in terms of being the story of men who see violence as the only solution to all their problems while the only thing besides hurting others that can fill the emptiness in their souls is money. Our lead here is William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a man who spends his days traveling across different casinos and playing cards. He likes the repetition, he tells the viewer in voiceover, much like he appreciated the routines in his eight-and-a-half-year-long stint in the slammer. Tell got incarcerated for torturing detained prisoners in the Middle East as part of his time in the U.S. military. The footage we see of these horrendous actions makes it clear Tell is meant to be a parallel to certain individuals arrested as part of the widely-publicized Bagram torture and prisoner abuse instances from the early 2000s.

Tell and other soldiers got put in prison, but his superior, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), and other powerful people who sanctioned the use of torture got away scot-free. Haunting memories of the pain Tell inflicted on others dominates his mind while Cirk (Tye Sheridan) has his brain focused on one thing: revenge. His dad was another soldier who worked for Gordo and he got dishonorably discharged for his actions, which sent him on a spiral culminating in his suicide. Cirk wants to torture Gordo himself in the name of vengeance, but Tell is hoping to avert that. No more bloodshed. It can't solve anything. Tell is a man possessed by obsession. Now he's taking Cirk on a cross-country poker tour to earn up enough money so that this twenty-something can have a life defined by something other than obsession over the past.

In The Card Counter, violence is a black hole sucking in anything and everything around it. Even when Tell isn't violently mutilating someone, the memories of violence he's inflicted seep over his thoughts. A scene set at the perfectly-named eatery Chat n' Chew is a perfect example of how Tell is a walking shadow of his former self, just wading through a fog of inhumane actions. Schrader pulls the camera in slowly but surely on Isaac's perfectly pitched performance as this actor portrays Tell recounting the details of his time being surrounded by torture 24/7. Isaac hauntingly captures how Tell isn't looking for pity. Cementing the horrific nature of his deeds is the only way he can live with what he's done.

Tell understands the power of violence and the scar it leaves in the years to come. Cirk doesn't, there's a naivety to how he approaches the concept of using torture on Gordo to provide some internal emotional catharsis. The rich dynamic between Tell and Cirk, not to mention their differing approaches to the concept of violence, make The Card Teller as compelling as any nail-biter card game. The thoughtful fusion of sociopolitical commentary and character work also emerges (among other avenues) through Tell's rival on the poker circuit, a man named Mr. USA. Adorned in red-white-and-blue, he has a simplistic view of his country that irritates Tell. This authentic depiction of the complicated views some veterans (especially veterans of color like Tell) have of the country they "fought for" is rarely seen in mainstream cinema, but serves as a key underlying theme here in The Card Counter.

Also impressing in The Card Counter is the visuals, particularly how Schrader uses them to reflect Tell's fractured psyche. The way Tell covers every item in his hotel room with these stark white sheets is especially evocative just on its own terms, let alone the way it startlingly conveys how detached Tell is from the world around him. He doesn't want to get too close to people just like he doesn't want to come into contact with foreign objects in the place he snoozes. Even the use of that 1.66: 1 aspect ratio, which echoes the 1.37: 1 aspect ratio of First Reformed, quietly captures how characters like Tell or Cirk are confined in by their traumatic pasts even when they're just having a drink at the bar. It's an appropriately persistent way to convey how enduring horrors of yesterday are.

Schrader delivers sublime work as a visualist and a writer on The Card Counter, and thankfully, the cast he's assembled is also doing terrific work. Of course, this is Oscar Isaac's show from top-to-bottom and he's more than up for the challenge portraying a wearier character than he usually tackles. With flecks of grey hair peppering the top of his head, Isaac conveys the years of mental turmoil he's suffered while, in the vein of other classic Schrader protagonists, keeping you on your toes as to how you feel about this guy. Do I sympathize with him? Am I terrified by him? It's a richly complex turn worthy of both Isaac's best work as an actor and of a movie willing to tackle such deep and grim territory. 

The Card Counter's relentlessly dour tone, not to mention some of Schrader's expectedly odd dialogue, will not be to everyone's liking. But as someone who likes gambling movies, good Oscar Isaac performances, and films that dare to confront the injustices of the world, The Card Counter was right up my alley. It's just the kind of movie I'd turn to when I need cinema that isn't escaping from reality but rather looking it square in the eye.

No comments:

Post a Comment