The first tell is that he calls himself William Tell — a name that sounds fake whether or not you’re an opera buff, a student of Swiss folklore or a kid who grew up pantomiming the heroics of The Lone Ranger and singing the theme song by heart. It’s a brisk, anonymous, poker-face of a name. It tells us almost nothing.
But there is indeed much to be said about the man whose birth name is William Tillich — he now goes by Tell. He has his reasons for wanting to obscure that fact. The Card Counter, Paul Schrader’s new movie (in theaters now and streaming on demand starting October 1st), gives him plenty of headspace to self-examine, literalizing his psyche in the confines of multiple hotel rooms and, at other points in his life, jail cells — the only places (poker table notwithstanding) that he seems to know. The first thing we hear Tell, played by Oscar Isaac, say in voiceover is this: “I had never imagined myself as someone suited to a life of incarceration” — as if he’s rewriting the opening of Goodfellas. And here he is minutes later, in the post-prison present tense of the movie, pulling the cheap art prints off the walls of a cheap hotel bedroom, unplugging the phone and the lamp, covering every surface — bed, tables, chairs — in starched white cloth secured with twine, taking the most nondescript of spaces and scouring for whatever may have been remotely worthy of description. Maybe now is the time to reveal where that opening line eventually lands: “To my surprise, having been sentenced to ten years in prison, I found I adjusted quite well.”
As he confesses this, he’s somewhere writing it; as he writes it — as we hear it — The Card Counter gives us a taste onscreen of what “adjusted” looks like. Tell in prison, poised and professional as he plays poker with other inmates. Tell in bed, reading (and informing us that before he went to jail, he’d never read a book before). Tell somewhere in his cell as a shot lingers on his prison cot, neatly made, with his slippers evenly lined up next to his bed. It’d be too easy to say that the fit of interior decorating we see in his hotel room is a way of getting back a bit of that prison monasticism. The enforced darkness of the hotel room, contra the bright openness of the prison — a prisoner must, after all, feel seen — makes for a stark difference. But it is all so sterile, in both cases, so controlled. It’s as if prison shaped Tell into the most viable version of himself for life afterward. Prison gave him a form; the poker circuit gave him a method.
That, in the broadest sense, is the movie. It doesn’t entirely work. The aesthetic procedures that Schrader and his collaborators have invented share screen time with fruitless chemistry between some of the actors, rickety mechanics in the plot, choices that limit its dramatic satisfactions even as its aesthetic rigor is full of spark. The extent to which that matters is a useful question — Schrader is by no means disinterested in keeping his audience on the hook and reeling us through the thicket of this man’s mind. But that mind in itself, not the scene-to-scene alchemy of the movie, is what emerges most thrillingly. Even without the the device of the diary to give us a titillating peephole into the man’s soul, we’d be drawn in by the rest of him, and that deliberate blankness he enforces around himself. This is the opposite of what he wants. But The Card Counter is not beholden to the vision of himself that William Tell wants. In the first place, he’s played by Oscar Isaac. This isn’t an actor you hire to play a post-human Stepford clone; he’s the guy whose failure to be reduced to that idea announces what it is that makes him human.
The Card Counter understands Isaac, and Isaac understands what the movie is offering him, as the line between public face and private fallacies only grows more apparent, and as the path Tell takes gradually arcs toward violence — an inevitability for this movie. It’s the newest a certain type of film that Schrader has been making since the start of his career, what the writer-director refers to as his “man in a room” movies. This informal sextet begin with his script for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (which ended with a bloodbath that evoked My Lai and other Vietnam terrors) and, prior to his latest, culminated in 2018’s First Reformed (which climaxes with a minister strapping a suicide vest to his chest). The men of these films are all the sum of what emerges from both their time alone, scribbling away their souls, and their time out in the world. The cabbie (Taxi Driver), the coke slinger (Light Sleeper), the godless minister (First Reformed), the hustlers (American Gigolo, The Walker), and now the poker player. They all have their rounds to make, their diaries to write in, their demons to master.
Tell’s life on the road and in casinos is more than a matter of profession and not quite a matter of helpless obsession. It’s a limbo of his own making, in the way that everything about him is of his own making. His hair: a handsome silver, slicked back, styled but not stylish. His uniform: simple shirts with neat jackets, professional and well-kept as a sniper by way of Alain Delon — as if, perhaps, to evoke the unchanging attire of his prison years. All of it always adhering to a cool palette and a cooler demeanor, a proper analog to that air of a certain something hovering around him. Tell travels from place to place, two bags in tow, waging his bets modestly to thwart unwanted attention, sticking to those highway hotels with their unfussy interiors. Pattern or punishment? It’s not easy to suss out the difference.
Suffice it to say that The Card Counter is not about poker, not really. It’s merely the game Tell masters in military prison. The question to ask is what landed him there. The answer — did you see this coming? — is Abu Ghraib. A chance meeting with a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) is what stirs it awake. Tell unthinkingly, or maybe intuitively, strides into a police conference in one of those hotel casinos and witnesses a presentation given by a certain Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). He recognizes this man, just as Tell himself is recognized by Cirk. These are the sparks that land Tell’s past back in his lap and leave him no room to avert his eyes.
Schrader fascinates because of swerves like these, which seem to tell us where we’re going only to leave us unprepared for what we see when we get there. The style of this movie, like First Reformed before it, is among the director’s most explicit nods to some of his cinematic forebears (Bresson, Ozu), with their transcendental style, their paring down of camera movement to a stillness belied by staggering emotional static, their way of mounting straight-shot images that nevertheless glisten with feelings and unknowns. Schrader has spoken of establishing visual rules — whether the camera moves, whether a character moves within a scene, the orderly procession of a shot-reverse shot sequence — and then, when it counts most, breaking them just so. Those rules and their breaking here sometimes make The Card Counter feel like you’re revisiting familiar ground, even as this new movie is wider-ranging in many ways. It has enough room for those huge casino interiors, the explosions of himbo jingoism courtesy of a dickwad poker player on the circuit, and the likable a personality of someone like Tiffany Haddish, who, as a broker named La Linda, shows up just in time to tempt Tell into a better life. An actual life.
But: Abu Ghraib. There’s no room in the schema of a film like First Reformed for the living nightmare of torture, crimes that were unimaginable from the outset and only became more so once we saw evidence of them firsthand. Seeing was enough for belief; it still couldn’t make the atrocities real. In the first place, it’s because of his tight visual schemes that Schrader can make something so simple as an unmade bed register as psychic chaos. That image — sheets in disarray — is used both here and in First Reformed, and is effective every time I see it. Here, we get an additional look at someone else’s bedroom, that of another mind out of order — and never before has the ordinary sight of dirty laundry, tossed sheets, and potato chips in a bed hit with such worrisome symbolic static.
Imagine, then, Schrader’s approach to Tell’s memories of an actual hellhole. What his time in the military meant for Tell is germane to the story that The Card Counter tells: what it felt like to be conscripted into torture, only to discover that you’re way too good at it. It’s a key to Tell’s psychological makeup. He elaborates accordingly, though his descriptions are outdone by the pure shock of Schrader’s head-spinning visual approach to Abu Ghraib’s corridors, which get funhouse-distorted onscreen through the use of utlra-wide-angle VR lenses. The movie takes what is already grotesque — the detainees covered in shit, physically and psychologically assaulted with sound, being beaten and terrorized by dogs — and rings it all into an ecstatically disorienting inversion of the ordinary, violating our own inner sense of what movies and other media have trained us to feel is “right,” aesthetically and ethically, about the composition of an image. It’s no wonder, given what we see — is this what it’s like inside his head? — that Tell becomes a man carrying a kit of white sheets and twine with him wherever he goes, tamping down all sense of visual noise in a room before he can sleep in it.
Schrader grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, raised by a pair of Calvinist parents who, as the Wall Street Journal has neatly summarized, “forbade him from going to the cinema, listening to rock music, dancing or working on the Sabbath.” Guilt was dominant; movies were a sinner’s game. This is an origin story that’s been rendered, over the years, into a hefty Rosetta Stone of answers and intentions, oft-recounted as a thesis on his work. In the case of The Card Counter, that early biographical bit, the part about movies being forbidden — about forbidden images — feels apt to remember. Because images play a distinguished role in the dispiriting moral universe of this movie, and not only the ones that Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan dreamed up to tell this story. It’s the images of his involvement in torture, rather than the torture in itself, that lands Tell in military prison; images, in which his superiors were wise enough not to appear, that demarcate the difference between the fate of the soldiers carrying out the work of torture from the fates of the brass who gave the orders and trained soldiers like Tell in the brute processes of dehumanization. The torturers had proximity to the tortured: this much, Tell makes clear.
This is not the same thing as an excuse. And forgiveness, as a problem and possibility, is not off the table here. In fact, it proves crucial to understanding what Tell understands of himself, and makes Cirk and La Linda’s appearances in his life more poignant. But the more difficult, harrowing question Schrader raises is about not Tell, but Tillich: What was it that made him susceptible to these atrocities? How it is that this man’s efforts to rehabilitate himself are far less successful than he would have us believe? These are questions about the legacy of violence and what it does to a man. It’s as if there’s no end to it. Reverend Toller, of First Reformed, cannot stop a holy institution, even when it becomes a business, from playing a hand in the world’s destruction. What could Tell possibly do to put an end to totalizing violence, then having himself been destroyed by it?
In one of those night-time diary purges of his, Teller sits shirtless at his table, beside a lamp muted by one of his white shrouds, and we see a tattoo on his back: “I trust my life to Providence / I trust my soul to grace.” It’s a lyric from a night-trawling, landscape-of-the-soul rock song by The Call’s Michael Been — the song we hear over the opening credits of Schrader’s Light Sleeper, that earlier iteration of the man in a room. (Been’s son, Robert Levon Been, wrote songs for Card Counter.) The lyric is printed in full, broken into two neat lines that stretch the full canvas of Tell’s back, just beneath his shoulders.
It is an aperture, not merely a reference. Light Sleeper was in part about a man left flailing by the question of his own luck — what would seem to be his word for “fate” — and by his sense that he has become a harbinger of doom, that more than merely having bad luck, he sucks it out of the fate of people he loves.
Luck is something that William Tell believes he knows a thing or two about. Yet he, too, turns out to be a black hole of a man. The terrifying difference is that Tell believes he’s mastered the odds. That he still fails, and the ways in which he fails, gives The Card Counter a power that tempers its dramatic flaws, most of which are ephemeral in comparison. The movie has real moral terror at its center. It gets ugly: It gives that word fresh resonance. This is where it gets things right — what will, one hopes, make it worth remembering.