The Card Counter

The Card Counter ★★★★½

Love it. The hellscape soundscape really gives this a deep sense of foreboding dread, reflecting William Tell's brain, permanently altered through witnessing the depths humanity can sink to when they have power, and how traumatising it can be to see pure dehumanisation up close. Now you can see between the blinds. William likes games such as blackjack and poker because they offer a semblance of order amongst the chaos of a modern world engulfed by torture, surveillance, patriotism, celebrity. Just count. Sink into the chair and become less a man and more of a metronome.

The Card Counter definitely feels like the little brother of First Reformed, which is no problem if you ask me. Where that film revolved around Reverent Toller’s struggle to come to terms with a world that was willingly killing itself, and his + our lack of actual effort to help, William Tell has actively, tangibly hurt people in his past, even though he, like Toller, had also been manipulated by powers stronger than him into a sense that what he was doing was for the greater good. Both films are about reckoning with our place in an uncaring world, and how to continue living with the knowledge that everything is bad and will only get worse. William’s logic is that he might as well make some money in the meantime.

William sees a lot of himself in Cirk, the kid who tags along with him as he glides from casino to casino, gambling anonymously and silently, winning just enough to not get himself some unwanted attention, but enough to keep his phantasmagoric but very real memories at an arm’s length, at least for now. He sees in Cirk someone with the same confused sense of betrayal and anger as him, but also someone still young enough to overcome the pain and escape the hole that has been dug for him. And then in La Linda, who offers to back him and get him on the World Series of Poker circuit, he finds the potential to lead a life of relative normalcy with someone who doesn’t remind him of the part he played in the war on terror. When the two walk through a garden lit by tremendous, moving colours and hold hands for the first time, it’s about as big of a contrast to the methodic poker tables and deliberately sparse hotel rooms William has occupied up until now. But, this being a Paul Schrader film, the colours that light up the garden are artificial, because William is only being offered a glimpse of this escape in a world that isn’t truly going to give him that chance. When his opportunity to escape the darkness is thwarted by coming head-to-head with the demons occupying his mind, and the walls he built up to keep himself from his past are torn down, what is there left to do but dive headfirst into the black.

Throughout the film, William has to play poker against a man simply known as Mr. USA, a circuit celebrity dressed head to toe in red, white and blue, who comes complete with his own patriotic entourage, and who always seems to win despite not realising he’s an embarrassment to everyone else at the table. The film never quite brings William and Mr. USA head-to-head, but this embodiment of jingoistic brashness is always there on the periphery of the film, of William, never allowing him to forget his role in the imperialist system. But for all the ways it haunts him, it was just water off a duck’s back to the state that commissioned it, that made him take the fall. He must keep living in a world that is eating itself from the inside and doing little to stop it, knowing he played his own part in that continuous, gluttonous meal. How to persevere through this, and maybe even forgive himself, is the next step. If only it was as easy as counting.

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