In The Card Counter, William Tell (played by Oscar Isaac) keeps his emotions under strict control. He’s a poker player, and the slightest facial expression could give away his hand. William’s life is equally circumscribed: He travels around the country from casino to casino, subsisting on low-stakes games and doing nothing to draw attention to himself. Every time he checks into an anonymous motel, he wraps each piece of furniture in white sheets, imposing additional invisibility on his already bland surroundings. In short, William is a complete mystery—except for when he writes in his diary every night.
The film is written and directed by Paul Schrader, the great chronicler of American antiheroes who wrestle with their dark thoughts, typically in journals. He used this storytelling device in his previous film, the electrifying First Reformed, which starred Ethan Hawke as a priest struggling to reconcile his faith with the existential threat of climate change. Perhaps Schrader’s most famous protagonist, Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (which Schrader wrote and Martin Scorsese directed), also kept a journal of disturbing thoughts. The motif is specific, but the filmmaker deploys it to great effect: slowly drawing the audience into the psyche of a man who grows more frightening—and more compelling—the more you learn about him.
The Card Counter is an impressive character study, which Isaac surely relished after his recent work in franchises such as Star Wars and X-Men. But much as with First Reformed, Schrader uses Isaac’s character to examine broader horrors—this time, the cruel legacies of the War on Terror. William, it’s revealed, served as a prison guard and interrogator at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq. His ascetic life is an attempt to impose order on the painful messiness of his memories.
The first glimpse of Abu Ghraib comes fairly early, after Schrader has introduced William’s meticulous routine on the road. The ultrawide fish-eye lens used to film the flashbacks makes the prison’s walls look like they stretch on to infinity. Visually, these memories are chaotic. The acts of brutal torture that William was forced to commit are presented as warped nightmares, suggesting a total loss of control—and making the stakes of maintaining composure in his new life even higher. Although his poker-playing persona is often chilly, his quiet skill at the game is the strongest psychological defense he has against his prior sins overwhelming him.
That sense of order is eventually shattered: Two different characters threaten to divert him from his narrow existence. First he’s approached by the canny, bubbly La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), who wants to turn William into a star on the gambling circuit. Then Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a scraggly haired youth in shorts and flip-flops, claims he’s the son of one of William’s compatriots at Abu Ghraib, and beseeches him to plot revenge against one of the prison’s evil administrators, John Gordo (Willem Dafoe).
William is literally offered two paths—one to legitimacy and another to vengeance. Schrader wrangles real tension out of which route he’ll take, if he takes one at all. The Card Counter is hardly action-filled; it doesn’t need to be. The fascination lies in unpacking the psyche of its main character, who is ashamed by the hurt he caused but also knows the perils of trying to assuage his guilt by retaliating. La Linda represents the temptation of normalcy, a chance to reemerge with a clean slate. Meanwhile, William becomes a father figure to Cirk, trying to steer the boy away from repeating his mistakes.
William’s hope for his own salvation, however, is tempered. Schrader has never been an optimistic storyteller, and The Card Counter is a mostly tragic tale, though it is tinged with hopeful notes throughout. And Haddish’s excellent supporting performance offers some necessary (and acidic) humor in an otherwise self-serious narrative. William is a strong character on his own, but he is also a metaphor for America’s struggle to overcome its grimmest failures and to break free from cycles of violence. Schrader understands that those are nigh-impossible tasks; still, he shows the value in trying nonetheless.