There's an old argument among filmmakers about whether it's possible to make a truly anti-war film. In the 1970s, French New Wave director François Truffaut famously declared that every war film was inherently pro-war, because to depict war on screen was to glorify it, showing it as valorous and heroic. In response, Steven Spielberg, after making Saving Private Ryan, argued that "Every war film, good or bad, is an anti-war movie."
The Card Counter isn't a war film, or at least not what you'd normally think of as one. Much of the action does, in fact, take place inside casinos, just as the title implies, and there is plenty of card-game lore for those interested in such things. But it is, in its own way, an anti-war film, a movie about the dark legacy of America's post-9/11 war on terror, and in particular the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques—more rightly labeled torture—deployed on prisoners at Abu Ghraib. For what it depicts is not the glory of war on the battlefield, but the ugly, almost invisible psychological toll that wartime acts of inhumanity inflict long after a war is over.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader, it's the story of a professional card player who goes by the name of William Tell (a steely, salt-and-pepper-haired Oscar Isaac). Tell travels the casino circuit playing small-stakes games and winning a little at a time. He's a loner, quiet and intense, with some odd habits, including a practice of wrapping every object in his hotel rooms in white cloth, giving his surroundings a blank and ghostlike aesthetic.
Tell, it turns out, has a dark past: He was a torturer at Abu Ghraib, and he served time in military prison for his actions. Now he spends his days killing time, counting cards, and earning just enough to live on—that is, until he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man whose father also served at Abu Ghraib, and later beat his wife and child before committing suicide. Cirk has a misbegotten plan to attack and torture an ex-military contractor, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), an interrogation adviser who presided over the facility where both Tell and Cirk's father worked.
Tell invites Cirk to travel with him, effectively adopting him in what becomes an informal father-son relationship. Tell takes on a financial backer, represented by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), and seeks to gamble his way into a fortune that he can use to set Cirk on the right path.
Schrader has long been taken with male rage and the sordid underbelly of American life, and the ways in which the right combination of vice, boredom, solitude, and obsession can poison a man's spirit, or give him twisted purpose.
He's the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and the writer-director behind 2017's widely praised tale of eco-terrorism First Reformed, among many other films, and he borrows from both films without simply repeating himself. He makes movies about lonely men with too much time on their hands and not enough direction in their lives.
The Card Counter is cast from a similar mold. Like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, Tell is a veteran and a diarist who reveals his thoughts in elliptical entries read in voiceover. The relationship between Tell and Cirk echoes the relationship between Bickle and Jodie Foster's teenage prostitute, Iris, as Tell, like Bickle, looks to save himself by embarking on a possibly doomed quest to save a damaged young person. Like First Reformed, however, The Card Counter is a sort of vengeful redemption story, in which an act of personal violence becomes a possible moral salve for a larger societal wrong.
I say possible, because the movie seems to want to have it both ways, resisting the impulse to violence, and preferring love and forgiveness to perpetuating the cycle of violence. Tell and La Linda maintain a pleasantly flirtatious relationship throughout the film that grows into something more, and Schrader seems to posit companionship and connection as a way to move beyond one's violent impulses.
But ultimately, Tell, and the film, give in to the cathartic release of vengeance. If there is a definite shift in Schrader's work over the years, it is in the way he has come not only to empathize with his angst-ridden male heroes, but to valorize them. Taxi Driver is an exploration of how a particular sort of postmodern male ennui can lead to violence, but it is not exactly a justification of such acts. The movie digs into Bickle's psyche, showing it, but not siding with it. First Reformed, on the other hand, seems, however haltingly and hesitantly, to side with eco-violence, or at the very least to suggest that it might be an unreasonable act, but in an unreasonable world, perhaps such unreason has its place.
The Card Counter tries to split the difference: Tell is so haunted by his past as a torturer that he has built an entire life around restraining the violent, angry impulses inside him. That past—depicted in a handful of horrific, hallucinogenic shots of military-run torture chambers—gnaws at him, flattens every interaction and every experience. Even though he tries not to confront it directly, it's the ever-present context for his life, because he knows he can simply turn off his empathy at any time.
Yes, he can occupy his mind by counting cards and calculating odds, trapping himself in an empty loop of low-stakes poker games—a feelings-dulling, time-killing prison of his own making. But he can never escape the awful things he's witnessed and done. And others, like Cirk's father, may not restrain themselves so successfully.
The Card Counter, then, isn't a movie about war, but a story about its grueling aftermath, the way that wartime acts committed in the name of protecting countrymen can poison individual psyches—and, inevitably, introduce that poison into the collective psyche of the society to which they return.
It's an intense film, a grim film, and it is sometimes difficult to watch. But it's also a gripping movie, psychologically astute and emotionally open in a way that Schrader's work is often not. The Card Counter is a movie about the loss of one's humanity, but it's nothing if not deeply humane.