Released the weekend of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter tells the story of war criminal Will Tell, who spends his days playing poker and counting cards after being released from an eight and a half year prison sentence. In his diary, Tell recounts the events that led him to live the life he now leads, narrating the horrific crimes he, his fellow soldiers, and his former commanding officer, Major John Gordo, all committed against the inmates of Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib. As he inches closer and closer to his breaking point, Tell’s morality finally faces its own trial.
Continuing Paul Schrader’s common themes of ‘god’s loneliest man’ as seen in First Reformed, Taxi Driver, and now The Card Counter, the film begins with Tell in solitude, driving from city to city, keeping to modest goals. Then, Cirk and La Linda are introduced. La Linda works for a group of investors who have a stake in their players winning; she hopes to hire him as a ‘thoroughbred’ card counter, a new addition to her stable of poker players. Cirk, the son of one of Tell’s fellow soldiers, seeks vengeance against Major John Gordo, allying with Tell to execute this plan. He desperately tries to put him on the right track — playing poker, gaining fame across the country to pay off Cirk’s debts. Schrader juxtaposes this current plot against Tell’s past to show that he must atone for what he’s done.
“Nothing can justify what we did.” Tell’s time in military prison is not enough to pay his debt to society. The torture he committed against innocent people in the Abu Ghraib prison is put on full display. The cinematography of the film distorts, making it appear as if the audience were also in the prison, committing these crimes against humanity. Tell frequently has nightmares of what he did at the prison. The cinematographer, Alexander Dynan, distorts the frame, inducing a claustrophobic feeling for the audience as they too experience a cramped recollection of what Tell did at Abu Ghraib. Along with documentary footage, Schrader highlights the SERE program, which trained US soldiers into extreme interrogators and torturers. These scenes show prisoners being barked at by dogs, beaten, played music so loud they go deaf, showered in human waste — only a fraction of true events that occurred at Abu Ghraib. The scenes of Abu Ghraib are a horrifying commentary of America’s malevolent ability to invade, colonize, and destabilize foreign countries.
The inclusion of Abu Ghraib is consistent with Schrader’s criticisms of America and its angry male population. Tell’s anger builds throughout the film as he tries to hold Cirk back from torturing and killing Gordo. In the end, Tell uses his skills of torture and interrogation against Cirk, to get him to see his mother again. Tell is dependent on Cirk to keep his human side alive, a side more powerful than his militaristic and fascist nature. La Linda’s relationship with Tell is even more important, because she is symbolic of Tell’s post-military life. He is pulled between Cirk, his military past, and La Linda, a simple future.
But feeling as if he deserves a life of loneliness, Will Tell regrets becoming friends with La Linda and Cirk, coming to see it as only a means to save Cirk from damnation. A young man with nothing to live for except for revenge, Cirk does not really think out why he wants it. Tell lets him know that there is no happiness in revenge — only more suffering.
Paul Schrader’s writing of Will Tell as an irredeemable character, despite the good he tries to do for Cirk, is exceptional. Though played thoughtfully by Oscar Isaac, Tell is a pitiful man who deserves the cards he has been dealt. Tell believes the only way he can repent for his crimes is to create his own prison sentence, covering his room in white sheets to replicate a perpetual prison cell.
The Card Counter is a harsh criticism of America’s involvement in the “forever war” against Iraq, as well as the many other countries invaded for the sole interest of gaining access to oil to protect the future of American capitalism. Schrader matches poker with war as a simple comparison, showing that both are horrible pastimes and they have no good impact on the people involved — especially Will Tell. Our protagonist symbolizes the monsters named Lynndie England, Charles Graner, and George Bush, along with so many others. The only difference here is that he’s regretful of his actions, regretful enough that he would risk his own life for Cirk’s. Schrader displays America’s capitalistic, predatory nature in the name of war as nothing but a game. Not only is The Card Counter is an accurate representation of the U.S. military, it is also a great exploration into the life of a regretful war criminal, one who simply wants to shut himself off from society, all so he can just count some cards.