“The Card Counter” deals a winning hand of intrigue and morality

By Daniel Paiz

Watching a standalone film is occasionally needed amongst all of the cinematic universes and franchises. That’s not to say I’m not clearly enamored with both (just look at the bulk of films I’ve written about), but it is to say that I needed an original story. Something that isn’t loosely based off of comic book material or something similar. “The Card Counter” deals just enough intrigue and questions around two seemingly different worlds of poker and torture.

Dealing out the plot and how two different worlds meet

Oscar Isaac’s character William Tellich, aka William Tell for his card playing name, has been haunted from his service days at Abu Ghraib. His every move and decision are determined by what he did in Iraq. He wishes to keep getting pummeled while in prison. He covers furniture in his hotel rooms with white sheets, tying them to make sure the sheets stay on. There is no aspect of his life where he isn’t calculating a move like he’s playing cards. It’s a defense mechanism. 

The tie between gambling and torture is an interesting one, but both are more connected than it might first seem. Both require one to disconnect from emotion and moral decisions, instead needing one to accept what’s in front of them. From there, decisions are made. Those decisions can pay off, and they can backfire. The effects of each decision are to be brushed off, because allowing them to stack up one way or the other can be dangerous. In poker it’s known as the tilt, where one begins to operate outside of their playable range. Torture has another phrase for it, as Tell will inform Cirk later in the film. 

Despite the intention to disconnect from one’s choices mentally, Tell has a quote mentioning that “the body remembers everything.” So, despite one’s best training and mental blackouts, the trauma of torture still plagues the torturer. Intriguing the audience is somewhat requested to cheer for some form of redemption for Tell. The appearance of Cirk (Tye Sheridan) helps to shift that request. 

Cirk and La Linda represent two different paths

Tell seems to not be a cautionary tale for Cirk, but rather a mentor needed for his sloppy and undisciplined plan. A father figure role this is not. Instead, it’s more about working to deter a younger version of himself he recognizes, one he manages to suppress during his prison time. Both characters appear as bullet trains of tunnel vision, largely preoccupied with their obsessions.

 Cirk’s one-track mindedness represents the US government’s decision to push ahead with interrogation black sites across the world during the most recent US occupation in Iraq. How things turned out in the war on terror, as well as the fate of Cirk, appear to have been fruitless (avoiding spoilers via vagueness). 

Tell loses himself in his work when it comes to both cards and duty. In a strange way, he disconnects from his humanity in order to preserve a part of it. Such compartmentalizing works due to routine, which slowly ebbs away. Funny, that finding some form of connection with others leads him to deciding he has to exercise his last demon of inhumanity, one he had been suppressing. Doing so frees him somewhat from his overwhelming guilt. 

La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) offers a path towards normalcy, an escape from the torment and anguish Tell continually lives with. She offers him an out but also a direction he seems to be unready for after all he’s been through. Understandably he won’t forgive himself. La Linda’s compassion towards him is more incentivized than it is altruistic, but that changes as the two grow closer. She’s not without her own agenda at play, in her simple opportunism in adding Tell to her stable of gamblers. Compared to Will and Cirk though, her character is a needed break of humor and normalcy. 

Two other characters that are used sparingly yet effectively are Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) and Mr. USA (Alexander Babara). Gordo doesn’t require much screen time as it’s abundantly clear he represents torture as another method of business. Gordo gets a job, does what’s asked of him, and moves onto the next gig, without seemingly caring about the ramifications of his work. 

Mr. USA is used just enough to kind of reflect how the rest of the world sees America. He could also stand for how a large percentage of those who support and cheer on US forces blindly appear to others. The main characters several times point out Mr. USA is Ukrainian, alluding to perhaps how those who support the US abroad don’t have a fundamental understanding of who they’re supporting.  

Dealing the final river

The Card Counter is not meant to give you Stockholm Syndrome for Tell or the US forces he worked for. Isaac does a good job of playing a tormented soul wrought with guilt, as William Tell isn’t looking for cheerleaders. He’s not even looking for forgiveness. Rather, he’s looking for redemption, justice, and in the end a twisted sense of peace. It’s understandable, and fitting for what trauma he’s endured. 

There is no excuse for the United States having torture sites across the globe. Tell knows this, and wants to purge himself of what he participated in, and how he felt when he did engage in torture. His humanity hinges on finding personal justice as the film reaches its end. Doing so guides him back to his coping mechanism of rigid routine.

Director Paul Schrader has the main character chronicle his encounters throughout the film in a journal. For me this feels like an effective way in which to get a better look into the mindset of Tellich. The error some critics are making is they’re expecting the gambling and whirlwind poker success Tell achieves to be the motor of the film.

That expectation isn’t what I get out of this. Rather, the trauma throughout the film and how gambling is a coping mechanism for the torture committed is what moves the plot. Maybe it’s a bit of a leap to claim that calling on a poker hand is similar to physical and psychological torture. However, the similarities between the two for me are why this method of storytelling works.

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