The author and director Paul Schrader’s movie “First Reformed,” from 2017, featured America’s battle in Iraq as an important half of its backstory: the protagonist, a minister performed by Ethan Hawke, is the daddy of a soldier who was killed there. In Schrader’s newest, “The Card Counter” (which opened Friday), the Iraq War is backstory that’s thrust dramatically into the foreground: the protagonist, performed by Oscar Isaac, is a veteran of the battle and each one of its wrongdoers and one of its victims, and within the course of the movie this previous surges destructively into the current tense. The two films are animated by revulsion on the prevalent American ethos and an absolute existential despair over the chance of any corrective or sensible redress. Although “The Card Counter” is extra tonally restrained than “First Reformed,” it expresses the identical rage, and it dramatizes what the earlier movie solely prompt—particularly, that these pathologies in American life, exemplified within the immoral battle, lead inevitably to political violence.
The protagonist—who was born William Tillich and now calls himself William Tell—is launched, in his personal voice-over, as a former convict who spent his eight and a half years in jail instructing himself to depend playing cards. The crime for which he was sentenced was torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Now he’s free, however he continues to be suffering from guilt; he has no sense of having adequately paid for his crime. His model of freedom is a self-imposed routine of self-deadening self-punishment, a form of residing loss of life in suspended animation: he travels obsessively from on line casino to on line casino, enjoying blackjack and poker for comparatively low stakes (and successful comparatively low sums), to keep away from consideration from safety. He sleeps in motel rooms that he reduces to a prisonlike austerity, eradicating photos from partitions and wrapping the furnishings in white sheets (which fill the suitcase that he drags from city to city). In his off-hours from playing cards, he writes in his diary, obsessively returning to the topic and the context of his crimes. At one on line casino, he meets a lady named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), the top of a steady of gamblers who play for top stakes, financed by personal backers with whom she brokers offers.
La Linda tries to recruit William, however he demurs, refusing to be indebted to any backers. He likens playing debt to guilt, calling each a “weight” that’s exhausting to bear—and, in contrast to debt, he says, an ethical weight can by no means be lifted. Nonetheless, he tries at the least to place his grim exertions to good use. At a security-industry convention happening at a lodge the place he’s playing, William drops in on a speech by the retired Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), a non-public contractor who ran the torture regime at Abu Ghraib and educated him there; within the corridor, William meets Cirk Balfort (Tye Sheridan), the son of one other soldier whose life Gordo ruined. Cirk (whose title is pronounced “Kirk”) has made it his life’s mission to get revenge in opposition to Gordo, however William decides to rescue Cirk from this doomed mission, an effort that includes taking Cirk on the highway with him and becoming a member of forces with La Linda, in spite of everything, within the hope of successful sufficiently big to pay Cirk’s excellent school loans, get him again into faculty, and assist him reconcile along with his estranged mom. Instead, William finally ends up drawn towards the looming determine of Gordo and right into a vortex of violence.
Schrader has had a career-long obsession with the character of obsession itself. He makes movies about individuals who do no matter they do, nonetheless profane, with an absolute devotion that quantities primarily to non secular, Christian inspiration. In the case of William, that devotion is an odd form of asceticism, a stripping down of his life so as to fill the time that continues to be with a rote vacancy—eight to 12 hours a day, he says, six or seven days every week, enjoying playing cards within the sunless, cheerless, impersonal glare of casinos—which leaves him nothing to ponder however his sense of guilt and the chilly rage that goes with it, aimed on the insidious workings of the damaged nation of which he’s the ready-made agent and fall man. But the chance of human connection—which William has been scrupulously, fanatically, desperately avoiding—provides him each temptation and redemption. His try to drag Cirk again onto the observe provides William’s self-scourging routine a way of goal that he thought he’d misplaced. From the beginning, his relationship with La Linda has the spark of a romantic connection, however William, in his self-denying isolation, gained’t act on it—till he’s goaded by Cirk to take action, in a deal made underneath excessive strain. The phrases of that romantic discount would appear absurd had been they not dramatized with an depth that shudders with excessive private and political stakes.
What pulls “The Card Counter” again from the bounds of such absurdity is the passionate fury of its cinematic symbols. There are flashbacks to William’s time taking part in torture at Abu Ghraib, that are filmed as expressionistic nightmares; fascinating prolonged riffs on methods of playing, which William delivers with the robotic chill of a technical guide; a horrific historical past lesson, by manner of meditations in William’s diary, on the origins of the torture program. “The Card Counter” denounces greater than a misguided battle; it decries the inherently corrupting militarization of American society at giant, and likewise the political hubris that goes with it. (The closest factor to a villain on the card desk is a rival poker participant in an American-flag T-shirt whose followers, with every hand he wins, leap up, chanting, “U.S.A.!”) Above all, the movie decries the impunity that the battle’s masterminds and the nation’s leaders loved whereas William and different frontline grunts took the blame.
It’s that notion of the prevailing order’s insidiously airtight system of self-protection that provides “The Card Counter” its livid power. Despite its tamped-down tone, the film evinces sufficient despair and rage to just about tear aside its sense of dramatic and aesthetic continuity; its sense of restraint retains the film from screaming. Schrader cuts from shot to shot and scene to scene as if tracing crudely lined wounds, the unhealed scars from the amputation of important elements of the soul. Yet the film isn’t solely an accusation; it’s a self-accusation, a narrative of William as an all-too-apt candidate for the job he was given at Abu Ghraib. His guilt points not solely from what he did but additionally from who he’s, from the popularity that his propensity for sadistic violence and indifference to struggling was already there, inside him, merely awaiting activation. Whereas Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” prompt that martial advantage is simply too valuable to be squandered on an pointless battle, “The Card Counter” goes additional, implying that the sense of navy satisfaction and nationalistic precept that drove Americans resembling William to enlist within the wake of 9/11 contained the seeds of the battle’s crimes, and that the hassle was sure to be perverted by the self-serving figures in energy.
One of Schrader’s essential symbolic gestures in “The Card Counter” includes his protagonist’s pseudonym: William Tell, of course, is the hero of Swiss legend who gained his fame as an knowledgeable marksman not just for the intrepid feat of taking pictures an apple off his son’s head with an arrow however, above all, for killing the tyrannical official who’d cruelly compelled him to take action. On the opposite hand, Tillich is the title of a celebrated Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, an anti-Nazi German who, when Hitler got here to energy, emigrated to the United States. In impact, “The Card Counter” is the story of how a Tillich turns into a Tell—how a principled particular person endures in an indecent regime, how an individual on a religious quest is compelled by circumstances to remodel that zeal into revolutionary violence. “The Card Counter” isn’t advocating any such factor; Schrader isn’t counting on his characters as mouthpieces. Rather, the violence is a metaphor that reveals a society-wide pathology in simplified and clarified kind, and likewise the complicity in unspeakable acts that each American shares.