We’d love to think firefighters rushing into the Twin Towers are the best representation of the American spirit, but sorry, an MP from Abu Ghraib and a private military profiteer carrying on with impunity are far more accurate. The national mourning in 2001 may have started legitimately, but it ended with military adventurism and torture, both blessed by our Commander in Chief.
With The Card Counter, Paul Schrader continues his dissection of American spiritual poverty, a project begun with First Reformed. In that film, Schrader posited a shallow name-it-and-claim-it megachurch as representative of US religion, narcissistically grabbing for dollars while the planet burns. In his latest, the best symbol of vacuous patriotism just might be Mr. USA, a flag-wearing poker player whose minions chant “USA! USA!” as he rakes in the bucks. The most incisive line in The Card Counter arrives when Oscar Isaac’s character, commenting on Abu Ghraib, states that it wasn’t a problem of a few bad apples, but of a barrel rotten through and through.
Isaac plays Will Tell, the aforementioned MP turned scammer of the title. After ten years of military prison, he now crosses the map to win at blackjack tables. He earns enough to subsist at motels and bars, but not so much as to draw the wrath of casino overlords.
As lensed by Schrader and company, Tell exists in a world of bland sameness, his clothes variations of black and gray, his environment dull browns and oranges. Tell is alone, either solo in the frame or isolated by shallow focus.
This monotony is threatened when two new people enter Tell’s life. La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) manages a stable of big casino winners and offers Tell an opportunity for larger takes. With La Linda, for the first time in over a decade, Tell feels the stirrings of romantic attraction.
Simultaneously, a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) introduces himself to Tell. The son of an Abu Ghraib guard who suicided*, Cirk has revenge fantasies that center around John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). Gordo was the private contractor who orchestrated the torture in Iraq but skated away consequence free, living lavishly in the D.C. suburbs. Cirk awakens a novel paternalism in Will.
As in First Reformed, names matter in The Card Counter. Ethan Hawke’s lead character in the earlier film was Ernst Toller, an “earnest toller” of US Christianity’s death knell. Here, Will’s original surname was Tillich, shared with theologian Paul, best known for his definition of religion as “ultimate concern.” His post-prison sobriquet, William Tell, is shared with the Swiss folk hero, a one-time symbol of patriotic resistance now only remembered for his exploits with a bow and arrow, commemorated with a frivolous classical overture.
The tattoos across Tell’s back signify he once believed in something larger than himself. But presently, his “ultimate concern” is making enough money to survive, with no social attachments or commitments. Tell represents the soldier morally ruined by wartime atrocities (which would 99.4% happen to you or me in the same situation), then scapegoated by a conveniently amnestic nation. His newly minted connections to La Linda and Cirk offer a chance for redemption.
I wish I could say The Card Counter achieves the greatness of First Reformed, but it just doesn’t. The 2017 film is a masterpiece of characterization, suspense, ideas, and visual wonderment. For me, it’s one of the three great films of the 2010s, along with Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro.
The Card Counter’s script lacks the same sharpness and originality, and its main characters are missing the intense connectivity of the previous work. The monotony of Tell’s existence doesn’t offer the cinematic vitality of First Reformed.
Still, in a just, more mature world, this is what Americans would be watching this weekend, instead of indulging in flag-waving theatrics or ingesting the pablum of the latest comic book adaptation. Perhaps one day this country will move past the infantilism James Baldwin so eloquently decried, but I’m not holding my breath for it.
(The Card Counter is now playing in theaters.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )
*Content warning: Tell’s flashbacks to Abu Ghraib are brief but horrifying.