The Card Counter

The Card Counter ★★★★

Belief in a moral universe infuses action with meaning. For most of us, this brings a feeling of power. Our actions have consequences, and that makes them important. In this framework, kindness, mercy and justice are tools to reshape our corner of the universe.

But for Paul Schrader, living in a moral universe also brings a feeling of powerlessness. The forces arrayed against goodness are enormous, and our individual actions are of so little consequence in the grand scheme that despair is only rational. Schrader is a moral filmmaker (if not a particularly moral person) but his morality is oppressive, impossible. His characters suffer under the crushing responsibility of being good — a responsibility that is out of their reach.

That's particularly true of Will. Schrader wants you to feel the weight of the evil things he's done, his desperation to atone for them, and his sense that his efforts simply don't have the juice. Will aims to both balance his ledger with good deeds and find forgiveness for his past, but both of these quests elude him.

Making Will one of the Abu Ghraib torturers would risk putting him at too far a remove from the average viewer for his guilt to really land, but Schrader wisely gives Will an excessively irritating poker nemesis who goes by Mr. USA, decked out in garish American flag paraphernalia, who chants "USA! USA!" at every victory (if that was too subtle, the movie released on the 20th anniversary of 9/11). Mr. USA is, like the casinos will haunts, pathetic. It's about as damning an audience surrogate as you're likely to find in 2021. Will, at least, has enough sense to hate himself for what he's done.

This is a movie about the stories we tell ourselves. Mr. USA that he is America, and America is an awesome guy who doesn't lose. Will tells himself that he's a bad person beyond forgiveness. "We are each responsible for our own actions," Major John Gordo spits at Will. "I believe that," Will responds (Isaac is just fantastic here). Schrader believes that America has built a myth of itself as a cosmic good guy. The Card Counter is a parable, a resetting of the narrative.

A lesser movie would have sought to condemn Will for his self-hatred, or at least provide him with a way out. But The Card Counter is not that kind of movie, and it's better for it. It's hard to imagine a less necessary movie than one that forgives this country for its wickedness, and this one doesn't try. Instead, it holds our faces to it in shocking, disorienting fisheye lens and brings the entire weight of a moral universe down on our heads.