52. There are 52 cards. 52 cards in a full deck. The way to count cards in Blackjack is to assign values to a set of cards, assign another value for the deck based on what cards have emerged, and adjust your bet, based on this information. The definition of Blackjack, as a noun, is a game where the player tries to beat the dealer’s hand, getting as close to 21 as they can, without exceeding it. The definitions of Blackjack, as a verb, are a. to strike with a blackjack [a metal weapon encased in leather] and b. to coerce with threats or pressure. The Card Counter is about card counting, as a periphery activity, but is actually about processing large-scale trauma and grief, spiritually channeling the diaristic lonely men of French filmmaker Robert Bresson, to tell stories of modern, biblical anguish.
The table is set. William Tell (Oscar Isaac) sits upright, with impossible posture and a perfect poker face. He learned to count cards in prison and remains deeply institutionalized by his stint in the US corrective system. His daily routine is always the same. He goes to a casino, plays some Blackjack for relatively low stakes, wins enough money, and finds a cheap motel for the night. In his motel, he wraps every piece of furniture in white sheets, takes down any art on the walls, pours himself a stiff drink, and writes in his diary. This continues ad nauseam, until he draws the attention of some new coconspirators. La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, I’m a fan of her, and this performance), runs the same circuits, and is deterministically drawn into Tell’s orbit. Cirk — “Kirk, with a C” (Tye Sheridan) is a troubled young man who’s father has died out of some trauma to which Tell’s past is inextricably linked. Their fates are all linked at the Blackjack table, their pasts as intricately intertwined as their impending futures. A dark character drama emerges, right out of the legacy of Paul Schrader’s cinematic heroes.
Once a black ops interrogator at Abu Ghraib, Tell now profits from his numbing sense of discipline at the card table. It is a religious exercise, as much as it is a profiteering one. Oscar Isaac is always good and always sturdy but is much enhanced by Tiffany Haddish, who has finally been given both exemplary direction and the opportunity to properly act. She does everything I’ve been waiting for her to do, as a minor fan of her past roles, but especially as an advocate for her opportunity to really show up in a movie. Tye Sheridon does a little less, but his character is written in especially as a painful motivator for Tell to negotiate his difficult past. That difficult path leads to Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the leader of their black ops interrogation unit, who sold out his team, sending them all to prison, and shouldering none of the blame for his own directives. The fallout of all that has to catch up to him now, breaking Tell from his perpetual poker playing limbo and motivating young Cirk with a C to find redemption.
The score hits like a dying last breath. It lingers in the seedy background of the picture. Just some breathing with dark ambient music floating over it. The lyrics play in the very same dying breath, stuttering out some thought or another about loneliness and how lost we all are. It often plays as the connective tissue of the work, with the arrangements provided by Robert Levon Been (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) and Giancarlo Vulcano, negotiating their musical histories between rock and more symphonic sounds that feel firmly entrenched in moviemaking. Their sounds are a great collaborative effort with the tightly composed cinematography of Alexander Dynan, returning from First Reformed (2018). The ethos of the films are dramatically linked: they speak the same gospel, both in entirely new ways.
It’s hard to determine the exact difference from First Reformed, a film that summarizes the entirety of Paul Schrader’s wonderful contributions to the crafts of screenwriting and directing, and The Card Counter, a film that doesn’t. That it resonates along the same wavelength is helpful. Schrader knows his way around making a film inside out because he has never stopped being a curious student. The Card Counter still plays as a film made by the man who has devoted his life and study to the Gods of Dreyer, Ozu, and Bresson, his films being his self-created holy scriptures made in their image. It still plays that way. But it’s harder to find motivations for the characters. The third act is resolved the same way as Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), but there is no catharsis. It feels less like First Reformed‘s ending, where we cannot be absolved, or find catharsis, because those are not available emotions in that cinematic text, but because those feelings are tried for and just do not land the same way they have in other pictures. There is the fact of the last couple years, weighing over every movie made within that space. There are several moments where voiceovers are very obviously recorded over, and no longer match perfectly the context of their shots, when a few reshoots would’ve made it a very tidy picture. Films still have to come out eventually, and while a Paul Schrader picture is several leagues ahead of the average modern prestige picture, in its total understanding of cinematic history and the many reference points we can make, The Card Counter doesn’t feel like the final picture of a certain type, not the way First Reformed did. Perhaps it feels like an addendum to that final wave of cinema, that last breath of Bresson. Maybe that’s the punctuated breathing sound haunting the score.
The cards are on the table. On the precipice of a broken American wasteland, still awash with technicolor dreams, Schrader explores a dark morality. Understatement emerges as a vital tool. Schrader’s characters are given a broad canvas, upon which they can commit just enough humanity, just enough rope to hang themselves. The film is a grim exploration, but also grimly breaks reality, and delves deeper into the darkness. In prison flashbacks, the camera distorts with extreme wide angles, stretching the picture so far, it nearly pulls the characters into a different frame. We track through nightmarish shots of the prison and the military abuses of prisoners. It asks us what our country has done and at what cost. We flash back to reality, and our lead, once a fascistic guard at the Iraq prison, and tortured himself, now sits solemnly at the card table. There is a troop of poker players and their entourage who seem to follow him everywhere, their leader wearing the American flag. The troop shouts, “USA! USA! USA!,” and we think of our country’s internal nationalism, starkly contrasted against this situation where our country sanctioned brutal torture on our prisoners from another country. It’s never just about poker.
Spaces and places are important in Schrader’s film. The motels, the prisons, the casinos. The man at the motel table, wrapped in white cloth, all at once a remnant of his military discipline, his own trauma, his obsessive need for personal separation from a material world, and every time, it feels like he’s assembling a kill room. Another torture chamber. The casinos do not hold any particular allure. They have the same faded American dreams as the patrons inside of them. The lobbies of hotels, with their long hallways, cast their own eternal loneliness. The spaces are drab, empty, yearning, places that exist as voids. There is only the depth the performers bring to them. Then, there is one space, a garden of bright ever-changing lights, a kaleidoscopic array of color, that shifts the film’s internal wellbeing from darkly despairing to vibrantly romantic.
The films that are acclaimed as “representations of our drastic times” so rarely get to be those films. Because they are so often literal. Putting current events in your films does not merely make them perfect representations of those social items. Paul Schrader has a different itinerary altogether. His route toward making an Important Modern Film is a route through the heart of American Loneliness. With all this empty space and nowhere to go, Schrader takes us to where dreams go to die, and where the past haunts our memories, where our country’s darkest histories manifest themselves, juxtaposed against an ignorant and unknowing public. It burns like a hot chemical fire. Possibly, you could watch The Card Counter, and not even literalize that meaning. You could take it as two stories, that vaguely overlap, of card playing and a history of torture. But William Tell says it best, it’s about America’s “World Series of Torture,” examining our national identity, against the dead dreams of the places that promise us so much opportunity.