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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

The Card Counter

See It Or Skip It: See It

A Mandatory Awakening

Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter is a broken down front door to a house where pure evil stands next to those repressing an indescribable urge to kick it in and smash it to the ground, pour gasoline all over it, set it on fire and watch it burn.

The Card Counter is narrated flawlessly by William Tell (Oscar Issac), a former soldier recently released from prison for his role in the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse. Having been recruited into it as a young man by Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), only a small portion of photographic evidence was released resulting in Tell taking the fall for Gordo and countless others like him. The quietness and predictability of prison life saved his sanity for a long time as he was consumed with guilt over his acts as a night shift interrogator.

Through flashbacks, you see that he was a young kid who didn’t know what he was getting into and was in such shock from discovering the world he found himself in that he didn’t know how to say no or walk away. In prison, Tell learned all about poker and now spends his time at casinos, betting on enough to capture some earnings but not enough to get caught for card counting. He is soon approached by Cirk (Tye Sheridan) a young man whose deceased father was a victim of Gordo’s abuse resulting in years of severe physical and mental abuse of Cirk and his estranged mother and eventually his fathers suicide. Cirk wants Tell’s help on extracting psychological and fatal revenge on Gordo.

Wanting Cirk to avoid a life of violence, he invites him to accompany him on the road while he gambles. He also seeks out the sponsorship of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) , a professional gambling manager. William Tell intends to win enough money for Cirk to pay off his and his mothers debts and start a new life.

That’s the plan anyway but Cirk’s quenching thirst for revenge doesn’t drain from his pores sending Tell into a spiral of reliving traumatizing memories.

Schrader’s style of filming the Card Counter is very specific and was a very smart way to tell the story of Abu Ghraib. Most films would have made up some fairytale savior government that discovers the corruption and works to extract it. There is no such government and they know nothing about the depth and gravity of despair and anguish that they unleashed in training the US military to torture those they captured through perpetual brutal beatings, sexual degradation, forced drugging, and other “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Telling the story through the lens of someone who experienced it is why The Card Counter works. It’s also why films like The Card Counter are so rare. People like Tell never get to tell their stories. Their stories are censored by mainstream filmmakers who make films that present ideas with false execution.

William Tell did horrific things but people who are truly evil can’t feel guilty because they are psychopaths. William Tell is no such animal. Issac taps into Tell’s psyche as though he’s a spread of information vanishing completely into an internet no one will ever search for or care about. Some men adapt to the culture of toxic masculinity society and the expectations and dare of them while others spend their lives living in the societal consequences that come from repressing it. William Tell repressed it but he still had to live it. Right and wrong are not black and white but good and evil are really very simple. William Tell doesn’t see himself as good but he knows evil and his mind resides on a boulevard of shattered hopes for our broken and inhumane world.

Sheridan’s performance as someone whose feelings about the draining world he lives in is so familiar to me. William Tell wants him to get on the right track, set goals and enjoy his life. It is not as easy as that the world bears down on Cirk every day in a very loud and punishing way, he is never free from the mental anguish of his collective memories. He doesn’t blink constantly but his mannerisms and his demeanor suggest he’s struggling to keep his eyes open. His rage exhausts him but he can’t turn it off. He looks as though he hasn’t had a haircut in years and he dresses too casually the way many millennials who have given up on the world do. He comes off as someone privileged people would see as a loser when he really just needs someone to believe in him. You really never know what someone else is going through. Looks aren’t always mirrored because they can be so deceiving.

Haddish is simply wonderful as La Linda. Haddish is a queen of comedy and while I personally haven't liked a whole lot of her films, I’ve always really liked her. She’s just a fun person who seems to operate on planets of smiley faces and giggles and she uses her work in comedy as a means of bringing those planets into all our orbits. The chemistry between her and William Tell is beautiful, they needed each other to heal.

As La Linda, she’s chatty and peppy but never too fast or over the top. She’s a woman who does what she does because she’s good at it and she feels very proud of that. She has a self-respect that she wants to bring out in William Tell, a self-respect she sees he doesn’t have. She’s no savior. All her associations with Tell are born out of her own choice to spend time with him. To spend her time with someone who isn’t fake. Someone who has something important to say but just doesn’t know-how.

Each time they visit a new casino, they always run into the same idiot gambler and his loser lackeys who scream the USA as they roam through the casino when they arrive for a new tournament! As if being a gambler is the greatest aspiration and accomplishment. This is a guy who knows nothing about sacrificing for his country. It’s a luxury to live here in comparison to other countries but many people can’t acknowledge our good fortune by birth without spreading the lie about our democracy. Why can’t we just admit that America has many sins and that it is not the shining light on the hill for everyone? The hypocrisy doesn’t add up. It never has. The way Issac looks down at the poker table (The Card Counter) as he hears that obnoxious chant, his eyelids going down but his eyes not shutting completely. He breathes so silently but you can feel him struggling to do it. The Card Counter has to be one of the most relevant and crucial films of our time. It’s a mandatory awakening about that very struggle, that suffocating struggle to keep ourselves together so we can live our daily lives as normally as possible.

Maybe we shouldn't.

Maybe we won’t.

Maybe we just can’t.

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