As I’ve said many times before — though perhaps I’ve only spoken it out loud and not put it down in my writing — I often don’t know quite how I feel about a film until I review it. Oh, I may come to the end of a movie with a general sense of “wow, that was really good” or “damn, that was terrible,” but sometimes figuring out precisely what makes me think that movie is good or bad or somewhere in between, why it elicited the emotional reactions it did, never comes into focus for me until I’ve finished my review. Not even starting a review is enough! I am often working through my reaction as I write. Sometimes it is the act of putting words to feelings, the attempt to intellectualize the visceral and the spiritual, that helps me understand. Sometimes I surprise myself with the places my brain takes me.
This movie is about a man whose very life is like this.
I’ve started this review of Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter about a dozen different ways over the past two weeks since I saw it. (I really would have loved to watch it again — procrastination that lets you tell yourself it’s work! — but the press screener I was sent expired before I could do that. Ack.) I’m still befuddled by this movie… but in the best possible way. This is absolutely a “wow, that was really good” film. But however I try to approach analyzing my response to it, however I try to pin it down, it eludes me.
The Card Counter is grim, mysterious, and unsettling, never more so than when it is quiet and still. Which is most of the movie. But its quiet stillness is deceptive: a brutality lurks below its calm, slick surface. As I was dropping off to sleep one night after a day of struggling with this review, this popped into my head: The movie is the cinematic equivalent of sitting as motionless as you can because the roiling in your stomach tells you that you will vomit with the slightest activity. (I sent myself an email from my phone to remind me of this. I did not want to forget it the next day. This is Important, I think.)
You can sorta see how this impulse — sit very, very still lest you lose control and embarrass yourself — might apply, metaphorically, to Oscar Isaac’s “William Tell.” (He tells people this is his name. It seems unlikely.) He is a card player, as the title of the film suggests, who wins at blackjack and poker because he is able to mathematically gain an advantage at the casino table, just by paying close attention to the cards in play. He gets away with it because he deliberately doesn’t win too big. He stays under the radar of the casinos he frequents. He draws no attention to himself.
Isaac’s (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, X-Men: Apocalypse) performance as “Bill” is a work of astonishing minimalism. It is everything by being — and I mean this in the most complimentary way possible — nothing. He barely moves his body or his face. But you can see the roiling inside him anyway. You can see that he knows it’s there, and that it threatens to explode from him at any moment. We see it in how he is extremely careful to ensure that the world around him is muted and plain and soft, from his dark, monochrome wardrobe to, well, how he arranges the motel rooms he seems to live out of. (His check-in routine is strange and silent and weirdly shocking — don’t watch the trailer beforehand if you don’t want to know what it entails — and Schrader and Isaac leave us to decide what it means and why he does it. It goes unexplained.) Bill’s world is the spatial equivalent of plain toast and tepid tea when you’re feeling unwell.
Bill knows what has made him unwell on the inside, which he grapples with in a journal he keeps — and narrates for us — each night, a perplexed yet introspective exploration of his own damaged psyche. But he seems not to understand what he needs to do in order to truly come to terms with his trauma until he encounters Cirk, pronounced “Kirk” (Tye Sheridan: X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Ready Player One), a young man with an unexpected connection to the past that haunts Bill. Even then, at first, he doesn’t realize. Eventually, after he has sat with the reality of Cirk for a while, this new acquaintanceship leads Bill to reconsider an offer from La Linda (Tiffany Haddish [Like a Boss, The Angry Birds Movie 2], making a terrific turn to drama), an offer he had initially refused, to become part of her “stable” of poker players, pros who accept financial backing to compete in high-stakes games from wealthy, anonymous “investors.” And they become an odd threesome on the competitive poker circuit.
Bill’s trauma, we come to appreciate, is rooted in 9/11 and his military experiences in the aftermath. The specific details of it, which we glimpse in Bill’s nightmarish flashbacks, are as sickening to us as they are to Bill himself: he seems to still be in shock to have discovered what he was capable of. I did not know this aspect of the film in advance, and by watching The Card Counter I accidentally broke my personal embargo on 9/11 stuff for the 20th anniversary. But I don’t regret this: this film feels like the first significant pop-cultural acknowledgement that the United States has been suffering from a moral hangover in the wake of its response to that day.
Like me not figuring out a film until I come to the end of a review, Bill doesn’t figure out what he needs to do to put his past to rest until the end of the film. His actions… might be a metaphorical push in the direction of how the United States can start to exorcise the nausea and the sickness that has been at its core for the last 20 years. (I mean, this specific sickness. There are others.) I started an early version of this review by calling Paul Schrader a cinematic philosopher of American moral complexity and ambiguity as embodied by men and their violence. (He wrote Taxi Driver and his last film as writer-director was 2017’s First Reformed, which has a lot in common with this movie.) But maybe Schrader is more like a therapist who is tired of listening to a patient make excuses for himself, and is trying to prod the patient toward taking some damn responsibility.