Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter is the story of a solitary man hiding from the world. Or more precisely, a man hiding from the sin and guilt that he carries with him.
“William Tell” (Oscar Isaac) plays cards for a living. He’s very good at it. He knows precisely the advantages the house holds in each game. He counts cards in blackjack (against the rule, but hard to enforce). He stays under the radar by never winning too big and by moving from one small casino to another. He lives in seedy motels. When he checks in, he covers everything with sheets to create a completely featureless world. His life is the personification of Stoicism.
His gambling skills catches the eye of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), an agent who arranges for backers for gamblers. When the gambler wins, they split the winnings. If they lose, that loss will come out of future winnings. William isn’t moved by the promises of bigger winnings (and the chance of indebtedness). But there is an attraction between William and La Linda. William’s Stoic lifestyle, however, doesn’t have room for romance.
At a law enforcement convention (cops offer a good chance for William to win against them), William wanders into a presentation by Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) about a new software program. Also in the room is a teenager, Cirk (Tye Sheridan), who recognizes William and gives him his number to call.
We need some back story at this point. William (PFC William Tillich) served at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War. Under the tutelage of Major Gordo, William tortured the prisoners there. His guilt and moral injury consume him, even after spending eight and a half years in military prison for his actions. Gordo, as a contractor, walked away with no punishment. For William the time in prison was comforting, with its routines and certainties. There he began to read. The book we see him with is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic who became Emperor of Rome. After release, William sets about his life in casinos, perhaps as a way of hiding from his past.
Cirk’s father also served at Abu Ghraib. He ended up killing himself. Cirk is out to avenge his father’s death by kidnapping, torturing, and killing Gordo. He seeks William’s help in this plan, but William knows that such hatred devours the soul and tries to dissuade Cirk. He asks Cirk to travel with him as a sort of protégé. William also calls La Linda to start in on the circuit and make more money. As William moves towards the big payday of the World Series of Poker, Cirk become impatient, and William and La Linda generate some sparks. As is often the case in Schrader films, there will have to be violence before redemption is found.
In press notes, Schrader define his genre of films as “they typically involve a man alone in a room wearing a mask, and the mask is his occupation.” William Tell, whether in prison, his spare motel room (his personal prison) or in the midst of a busy casino is such a man alone in a mask. The man behind the mask we only really discover in his thoughts as he journals. Those thoughts are about the weight of the sin that he carries and the lack of the possibility of forgiveness for those sins.
Sin and redemption are key themes in Schrader films. (He directed Hardcore, American Gigolo, and First Reformed. His screenplays also include Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Mosquito Coast.) There are no filmmakers better at dealing with those topics than Schrader. Schrader’s Calvinist background is often present in his films. It is not explicit in this film, but it is present nonetheless.
Sin here is tied to unspeakable violence. William cannot forgive himself for participating. And we are subtly reminded that he was doing so in the name of America. Perhaps we are willing to look away and move on (without admitting the sin or the need of forgiveness), but the moral weight of what William did is a burden he continues to carry. Here is a man who knows guilt—not as an abstract, but as a daily presence in his life. Even when he was in jail, he was seeking more punishment in a search for expiation. Now he seeks to live behind his mask and be disconnected for the world.
Are William’s sins forgivable? We want to answer yes, but how can we say that without a severe price being paid? And if we see our own culpability in his sins, how can we not wonder the same about our guilt? The real question isn’t about the sin, but how do we find redemption? William sought to survive anonymously, but in the end it will take far more for his life to be redeemed.
The Card Counter is available now on Blu-ray and Digital with the bonus featurette “A High-Stakes World.”