‘The Card Counter’ is a disturbingly timely rumination on America’s war on terror

We know something is badly wrong with William Tillich (Oscar Isaac) more or less from the moment we see him. William is telling us calmly how to count cards — how to give himself a mathematical advantage by keeping track of the cards in play during a game of blackjack — but he does not look like a vocational card player. Everyone else is dressed like they’re on vacation or, in the case of the other pros, in such a way as to grab attention and distract their opponents. But William is dressed in muted colors, nicely fitted; his short hair is neatly slicked back. In the tawdry casinos William frequents, it’s the most garish uniform he could possibly wear.

We know something is badly wrong with William Tillich (Oscar Isaac) more or less from the moment we see him.

William, who goes by William Tell at the blackjack tables, is the narrator and antihero of writer-director Paul Schrader’s hypnotic new film “The Card Counter,” which opens in theaters Friday. It’s a companion piece to Schrader’s religious thriller “First Reformed” — both movies follow troubled heroes whose diaries provide the voice-over narration — and a disturbingly timely rumination on the true cost of the horrors of the war on terror and America’s systemic torture of detainees.

Several acclaimed films have tried to justify the pointless brutalization of detainees — Kathryn Bigelow made an entire movie, “Zero Dark Thirty,” devoted to propagating the lie that these cruelties produced lifesaving intelligence. Some, though not enough, have depicted the effects of war on the civilians who were kidnapped and maimed or worse by the U.S. government in the name of freedom. But “The Card Counter” is the first movie I’ve seen that examines, without in any way excusing, the way torture hurts the torturer.

Schrader specializes in protagonists who seem mere moments away from exploding, occasionally literally, and in Isaac, he has an actor of near-total self-awareness and charisma, making us worry harder than usual. The movie is a fascinating blend of old-fashioned and contemporary styles: William and his love interest La Linda, beautifully played by Tiffany Haddish, have very little naturalistic dialogue when they’re on screen together, so both sound like refugees from 1960s classics like “The Hustler” or “The Cincinnati Kid.”

But the scenery and costumes are very specific to the rootless, perfunctory glamour of casinos outside the Las Vegas strip. The card games are low-stakes, the motels are clean but spartan and the world outside them barely exists.

Every other player is dreaming of hitting one jackpot or another, but William clocks in at the blackjack tables like a croupier. He’s been there since he got out of prison — Leavenworth, a military penitentiary — and he knows the rules: Don’t win too much, stick to the cheap places and stay out of sight. It’s a tentative form of life, lived entirely on the surface of the world by a man who seems terrified of any kind of contact; at night in his hotel, for reasons Schrader never explains, he wraps every item of furniture in white sheets and twine he carries with him in a suitcase.

William went to prison for participating in the United States’ torture program at Abu Ghraib; more specifically, he went to prison for being photographed participating in the torture. So he avoids the spotlight in any way he can. He pays for things in cash, makes himself scarce when a pit boss moseys by to see who’s winning at his table and doesn’t enter tournaments.

Or at least he does until he meets two people who change his perspective: La Linda, who tempts him with all the things he’s been denying himself — emotional connection, sex, a career playing cards, maybe even something like a family — and Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of one of his fellow torturers, who wants him to commit a murder.

It’s not quite right to call John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), Cirk’s intended target, the villain of the story. “The Card Counter” is about a man at war with himself, not with someone else.

Every other player is dreaming of hitting one jackpot or another, but William clocks in at the blackjack tables like a croupier.

Gordo, though, is a villain. He’s a composite of several different real Americans who contributed to wartime atrocities: John Yoo, the smooth legal theorist who wrote the memo declaring torture could be conducted under U.S. law and now has an endowed chair at University of California, Berkeley School of Law; James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the two contractors who were paid more than $80 million to design the program itself; and even functionaries like former President Donald Trump’s CIA director, Gina Haspel, who allegedly oversaw hideous abuses at a black site in Thailand and destroyed the evidence of her presence there. Schrader is clear: If you ignore right and wrong, William’s mistake wasn’t maiming and brutalizing people for no reason; it was getting photographed doing it.

But of course, Schrader is passionately interested in right and wrong, though he keeps the definitions of both slippery. Does William even deserve to pursue La Linda and try for a happy life, since he owes a larger debt than he can ever repay? Can he take Cirk under his wing without encouraging him to act out his pathetic revenge fantasies? The answers to these questions seem obvious as soon as we understand the movie’s stakes, but Schrader keeps us guessing at whether or not his hero can step back from the brink. Flashbacks to William’s time at Abu Ghraib are shot with a garish superwide lens that shoves every corner of the prison into our field of vision at once, and the camera is always in motion. When William is playing poker and weighing his options, Schrader’s eye is still.

The movie’s final sequence is ambiguous — probably intentionally so. He told Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson (my podcasting partner) that the climax of “First Reformed” could be read as either the hero’s last-minute reprieve or his death; “The Card Counter” offers the same choice.

Schrader has spent nearly two hours carefully laying out William’s every move with metronomic precision, but at the end of the film, he intentionally confronts us with impossible twists and resolutions. On the one hand, destroying his carefully wrought narrative almost seems like a waste; on the other, the movie builds inexorably and realistically to the conclusion that there’s no way out of this intersection between capitalism and state violence. Maybe his abandonment of realism is his gift to us, since we’re trapped at that crossroads, too.

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