The Card Counter – Exploring the depths of a protagonist’s existential despair

Redemption is the long game in writer-director Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter. Told with Schrader’s trademark cinematic intensity, the revenge thriller tells the story of an ex-military interrogator turned gambler haunted by the ghosts of his past decisions.

“Over the years I’ve developed my own genre of films, and they typically involve a man alone in a room wearing a mask, and the mask is his occupation,” says Schrader.

While Schrader was seeking financing for a Western starring recurring players Willem Dafoe and Ethan Hawke, an idea occurred to the filmmaker, rooted in his perennial themes of guilt, penance and moral reckoning.

“Not general guilt, like Christian guilt, but a more specific kind of guilt,” says Schrader. “What if someone had done something that he cannot forgive himself for? He’s been to jail, and while society may have forgiven him, he hasn’t forgiven himself. He did a terrible thing, and now he’s living in a kind of purgatory. How does he work through it?”

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Like many of the characters Schrader has written — Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Julian Kaye in American Gigolo, Reverend Ernst Toller in First Reformed —William Tell is biding his time and waiting for something to happen.

“For The Card Counter, I had to come up with a profession for someone who is waiting, and who is living a sort of non-existence,” says Schrader. “Gambling felt like the perfect milieu.”

In The Card Counter, William Tell is alone in his room with a mask on — that of a professional poker player, who happens to be a former torturer for the U.S. government.

Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / © Filmfinity (Pty) Ltd

Executive produced by Martin Scorsese — Schrader’s collaborator on Taxi Driver — The Card Counter features the veteran filmmaker’s signature style, plunging to the depths of his protagonist’s existential despair and rising to when he finds a surrogate family in the form of his agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) and the teenager Cirk (Tye Sheridan), searching for meaning after his soldier father’s suicide

While watching poker shows on TV, and thinking about the psychological motivations of people who play slot machines, Schrader started envisioning the quotidian life of gamblers — a monotonous non-existence where hours can pass without much happening. “That’s what Tell does — he exists in this limbo, traveling from casino to casino, playing cards, waiting for something to happen,” says Schrader. “With poker, you can play for days before that magic hand comes. Every few weeks or so, something good might occur — but mostly it’s a waiting game.”

Schrader next created a rich back story for Tell, involving a dark and tumultuous past as a soldier in the Iraqi war.

“I asked myself what he could have done in his life that was so egregious that he simply could not get past his crimes,” says Schrader. “Even serial killers can forgive themselves, but what if he had done something that stigmatized his own country? That’s when I started thinking about torture at Abu Ghraib prison — a kind of malfeasance that injured not only the Arab captives and their American torturers, but an entire nation and the military culture that enabled it.”

The immediate world of The Card Counter unfurls inside the anodyne American casinos, cocktail lounges and motel rooms of the low-stakes professional gambling circuit, where Tell plays poker and blackjack less for the money than to simply pass the time. Peppering the American landscape in the coastal regions and alongside bustling interstates, it’s the ideal locale for someone who wants to get lost, and stay lost. In Schrader’s hands, it’s also a place where someone like Tell can find himself — unexpectedly — through others.

Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell and Tiffany Haddish as La Linda in The Card Counter, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / © Filmfinity (Pty) Ltd

But Schrader has never been interested in happy families or happily ever after — his concern has always been the loneliness and isolation of solitary men, from Travis Bickle’s escalating insanity in Taxi Driver to Reverend Toller’s quiet unraveling in First Reformed. William Tell’s trajectory is no less searing and existential, but as his character develops and transforms over the course of The Card Counter, so does the viewer’s conflicted and mounting dread — until the movie explodes in an act of cathartic violence.

“My aim is to create a crack in the viewer’s skull, opening up a rift between what they desire and expect of my characters and what they feel after spending time with them,” says Schrader. “How they make that adjustment is up to them, but to get the viewer engaged in this kind of conflict is what every artist seeks. It’s not so important what my viewers think, but that they do think.”

The Characters

Like many of Schrader’s characters, William Tell unfolds over time, revealing new facets, flaws and dimensions as the story progresses. He does just enough to get by professionally, playing cards by day and spending nights in anodyne motel rooms where he places white fabric over furniture and fixtures to blot out the present so the past can percolate up. Alone in his room with his thoughts, he writes in his journal, ruminating past and present actions in a methodical voice-over narration.

Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / © Filmfinity (Pty) Ltd

“You have a general sense of who this guy is — he’s mysterious, and there’s something strange and meticulous about his routines, until you slowly start to realize what he is, and the things he’s done in life,” says Isaac of Schrader’s casual method of revealing character and action. “Tell is someone who has chosen to remain in a state of limbo, learning to count cards in prison and choosing low-stakes gambling to get by in life. He’s not in any hurry.”

“He’s in this kind of circular pattern as a form of penance because he’s done something that we come to learn over time is terrible — it’s caused damage to himself and others, not to mention his own country,” says Isaac. “The legal ramifications of what he’s done, and the prison time he’s served for his crimes, is not enough for him. He doesn’t feel like he’s been punished enough. He chooses this life that’s desolate, portable and repetitive. This is where we find him as The Card Counter begins.”

“This is another in Paul’s ongoing series of man-alone-in-his-room movies and I dove right into the character of William Tell,” Isaac adds. “I came to appreciate how Paul writes into his screenplays the space for thought, subtext and subconscious exploration — things that maybe seem like they make sense, but really don’t in a logical way. You have to do some work when you grapple with his movies. But you come to realize after multiple reads or viewings that the human mind doesn’t always work logically — which is essential to understanding both William Tell and Paul’s work in general.”

To help Isaac understand the intensity inside William Tell, Schrader had the actor read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s foremost experts on traumatic stress.

“This book was revelatory in so many ways for shaping this character,” says Isaac. “Men like William Tell that come from trauma haven’t really dealt with it because they don’t know how to — it’s frowned upon for a man like him to even seek help. William doesn’t know how to be in the world, and sees danger everywhere — he’s closed himself off. Even when you feel like he’s made some gains mentally (towards healing), his physical reactions to bad things that have happened don’t fade away so easily.”

Tiffany Haddish, whose character La Linda becomes Tell’s love interest over the course of the movie, offers her own unique take on the quintessentially Schraderesque character. “He’s a soldier and a writer, and a very mysterious guy who is grappling with his feelings and emotions, but at the same time he’s excellent at playing poker and reading people’s body language,” says Haddish. “He isn’t simply counting cards. He might also be a murderer. But he’s a lover too — even as he tries to suppress those difficult sides of himself.”

Tye Sheridan and Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / © Filmfinity (Pty) Ltd

At a security conference on interrogation and truthfulness, presented by combat veteran Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), Tell meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan) a high-school drop-out whose late father connects to the poker player’s black-ops past in Iraq. Skipping over Gordo’s murky role in the equation, The Card Counter switches gears to focus on Tell and Cirk’s budding relationship.

“William is suddenly afforded an opportunity to reengage with the world through this teenager and we start to see him shedding some of his negative qualities,” says Isaac. “He concocts a plan to mentor this kid as an opportunity to forgive himself — and be forgiven in turn. Tye’s character is the one that breaks everything open for William. For the first time some kind of redemption seems possible.”

The improbable duo hits the road, traveling from casino to casino as William works the tables and Cirk’s identity and motives become more clear-cut. Like Tell, the teenager’s father committed similar crimes in Iraq — and was trained by the same sadistic military official. Harboring his own demons in the wake of his father’s suicide, Cirk has embarked on a dangerous mission — capturing, torturing and killing his father’s superior in Iraq. And he wants Tell to help him do it.

“In my story, guys like Major Gordo are doing quite well in life, they are private consultants for security outfits, working the lecture circuit after having received no punishment at all for their shadowy and heinous crimes,” says Schrader. “It’s the infantrymen like Tell, and Cirk’s father, who served prison time — while Gordo is out in the world making more money.”

Tiffany Haddish and Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / © Filmfinity (Pty) Ltd

The Card Counter is at its heart a love story, and Haddish and Isaac exude a palpable on-screen chemistry, in particular during their love scene, which was a first for Haddish. “Working with Isaac was a tremendous learning lesson for me because he knows how to be still and can tell you everything in a scene without saying anything at all,” says Haddish.

“You can see from his body language, the way his eyes dart from side to side, how he grabs a glass off the bar. It says everything about his character and what’s going on in his mind, and it comes across so effortlessly. I’m still learning how to do that. I’m a very physical person by nature, but there’s so much you can master in the stillness.”

Paul Schrader’s Career – The preeminent philosopher-auteur of Hollywood

Paul Schrader (Writer, Director) is a screenwriter, director, and film critic whose past credits include Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Raging Bull (1980), American Gigolo (1980), Taxi Driver (1976), and more recently Dog Eat Dog (2016) and First Reformed (2017). An expanded edition of his book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1972) was released in 2018 with new writing on Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr, among others.

Schrader was born in 1946 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to a strict Calvinist family; he purportedly did not see a film until his late teens. After attending Calvin College, where he studied English and theology with the intention of becoming a minister, Schrader relocated to Los Angeles in the late ’60s, studying film at UCLA. He became a protégé of the influential New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael after his film criticism in the Los Angeles Free Press began to draw national attention. Kael helped him to secure a position as a critic in Seattle, but Schrader was drawn to filmmaking and turned down the job.

One of his mentors at the time was designer-filmmaker Charles Eames, who taught Schrader a philosophy of visual literacy—the notion that an image or object could also be an idea, and that words aren’t the only way to tell a story. He began writing screenplays in the 1970s, at the dawn of the New Hollywood era. His first produced script was 1974’s The Yakuza, a neo-noir crime thriller co-written with his brother Leonard Schrader and Robert Towne (Chinatown; Shampoo), and starring Robert Mitchum. Warner Brothers paid a record sum for the script, providing the Schraders with an entrée into the industry.

As the decade progressed, and movies became the center of the cultural conversation, filmmakers like Frances Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Terrence Malick catapulted to international prominence and prestige.

In 1976, Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver, directed by Scorsese, placed him in the top echelon of American filmmakers. In 1978, he directed his first feature, the crime caper Blue Collar, based on his own script about union members toiling on the assembly line in a Rust Belt enclave. By the turn of the decade, the dual punch of Raging Bull and American Gigolo confirmed Schrader’s reputation as the preeminent philosopher-auteur of Hollywood.

Over the course of five decades, Schrader has concocted stories about lonely, anguished men trapped inside themselves, yearning for love and connection, preoccupied with vengeance and redemption, and often at the mercy of their own conflicting impulses. In both Taxi Driver and The Card Counter, internal and external forces come to a head in an outburst of violence. Both Travis Bickle and William Tell find themselves torn between disparate realms, desperate to find peace in a chaotic world.

Other classic Schrader characters brought alive on page and screen include Julian Kay, the titular American Gigolo trapped in the surfaces of his shal¬low Los Angeles existence, which renders him incapable of expressing love; Jake LaMotta, the volatile, tempestuous prize-fighter in Raging Bull; Jesus Christ, the quintessential religious martyr in Schrader’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ; Yukio Mishima, the tortured Japanese writer whose artistic frustrations resulted in a suicide which, under Schrader’s masterful direction in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, becomes an epiphany; Wade Whitehouse, the washed-up New Hampshire cop in Af¬fliction, played by Nick Nolte in a career-best performance, who clashes with his abusive, alcoholic father while he investigates a crime; and Patty Hearst, the kidnapped heiress turned bank robber, one more pent-up and confined lost soul who finds
liberation in acting out irrationally, and violently.

A common theme in these works is transcendence. Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, recently updated with a new introduction, tracks this tendency through world cinema, and figures prominently in many of his works. As his charac¬ters grapple with their demons, they find themselves transformed and frequently exalted or redeemed, even in their torment. The Card Counter encapsulates key Schrader themes of loneliness, isolation and redemption, as the hermetically sealed Tell is rejuvenated by human connection — only to be dragged back down to the depths by the demons of his past.