paul schrader's the card counter

The Card Counter, by Paul Schrader

It’s going to be hard to review the new film The Card Counter from mere memory; usually the opportunity to watch again, especially those key moments where a theme or even just a detail the writer’s argument can lean upon requires exact knowledge. However, I think it will be fine; after all, Bill Tillich aka William Tell, the protagonist played by Oscar Isaac, lives a life half in memory. Still, the subject isn’t easy. If anything, Paul Schrader’s latest masterpiece on suffering comes not to please but to upset our little community of card playing, if it’s about us at all.

I’ll start with a simpler score to settle, because I felt indignation at the blubbering about the title from within the poker community. “Wat,” our village idiots, and even some very smart people, say, “it’s a poker movie, but we don’t count cards!” A little ungenerous, given we count combinations, but I guess so many of us don’t that we give the game away a little as to our level of play, if not our interpretive ability. That’s trivial, though, because names do matter. The film, as poker journalist Chad Holloway noted, does explain the title in the most literal sense, one that is apparently very important to us on-spectrum card junkies. 

Tillich is a blackjack expert and thus is a card counter, but is dragged into mid-stakes poker tournament stakes by LaLinda, the Tiffany Haddish character. LaLinda is an agent for a staking operation. Upon seeing him at a WSOP circuit event, she recalls his poker abilities, which he never took beyond small stakes, senses profit, and after an initial rebuff, thus Tillich moves into poker more seriously than he has ever played before. Schrader further emphasizes Tillich’s reluctance to play bigger, whether it’s blackjack or poker, by connecting guilt and debt- he’s had enough of trouble, and wants to live quietly, unnoticed. It’s one of the main plot devices, the other being the son of a fellow private at Abu Ghraib recognizing Tillich at a law enforcement conference. When he raises the stakes of his play, he also ends up confronting his past: a neat and meaningful plot symmetry. Desire to aid Cirk, desire to be around LaLinda create confrontation, aka drama. These devices, these character motivations, are understated, but true to Schrader’s style; this is no “save the cat” bullshit for elevator pitches and Hulu retreads. After all, Raging Bull, which Schrader wrote, one of the most poignant movies ever, barely explains anything – it is written and directed as an hallucination set to arias and music, an art film that is so good, so well executed that the audience forgets they’ve been tricked into loving an essentially flat character. Scorsese himself acknowledged this with satisfaction when it was pointed out. However, that’s not even the beginning of the point about the title.

The reason the film is called The Card Counter is because Will Tillich is confined into prison (depending on how you count it, up to three times) and that is how he passes his time. He likes it. He learns to value repetition and respect both limitations and boredom, having been denied life and love, because he and other subordinates have taken the fall for Gordo/Roger’s illegal and cruel leadership at Abu Ghraib. Oftentimes poker players, and I suppose anyone trapped in a small community, have trouble when some detail of their world isn’t exactly right: poker players are small-town gossips as much as anyone, just think of NVG. For instance, Holloway can’t understand why Tillich would leave the circuit final table near the climax. What people are forgetting is that the game is just that, a game. For Tillich, poker is another way to pass the time (that may even be a line from the movie.) Cards and games are perpetual boyhood. When Tillich leaves the table, he leaves behind childish things in order to complete his journey as a man. In fact, this underscores the idea: Tillich is not even a poker player, and his passage on the circuit is mostly incidental to his spiritual son and ward, Tye Sheridan’s appropriately squishy Cirk, and to commercial (and less commercial) overtures from LaLinda. Ultimately he returns to prison, to once again count the cards of his life.

So Tillich is, at heart, still a blackjack player and thus a card counter: Schrader understands his golem. He cannot escape his past, cannot become the winning poker player LaLinda wants him to be. The title reinforces the story of the character. The tragedy, of course, is that it is through the immediately following intimate encounter with Gordo (Willem Dafoe of course) where he finds ecstasy and redemption in torturing (and being tortured by) Gordo, destroyer of lives. This real climax, as opposed to the final table, is not shown by Schrader, this horrifying act of love and hate, nor would it be good to do so. Schrader, master of images, understands this. We do hear the action, however, as the camera backs off: it is visceral and gargling and final. Tillich’s broken fingers dangling and quivering like hot meat are all the literalism Schrader will deign.

The reason a visual medium would not reveal every detail is subtle. The same poker players who are outraged that it is suggested they “count cards” are perhaps unlikely to understand that film is a pattern of images, not a continuous stream of one character’s consciousness. In fact, everything is a hint, and in a good movie, the hints are plentiful and meaningful. For The Card Counter, one of the primary image patterns is the indoors. In fact, the scenery of The Card Counter is quite familiar and should fill many of us with a certain nostalgia for the life of casinos and mid-stakes travelling. There is humor in this garish life. We need this humor, especially in poker, because as all pros know it is as much a job as any, and subject to all the banality one wished to get away from. The miserable but clean mid-class motel, the ugly carpet and stale walls of the casino-hotel and its convention area captured in their vulgar charm and detail, as Holloway noted. The poker community should take note of this kind of meaningful accuracy and worry less about the slippery title.

Speaking of humor, at the bar in, I think, Delaware, Tillich and LaLinda ask for Manhattans, and they are delivered on ice, a horrible cheapness that is endemic to bad bars and barkeeps. The Manhattan, after all, is a dark cousin of both deep red wine and in the rye family, a drink for moods and thinking and headaches; it is thus both heavy and should be always a little too sweet, like a medicine. Served on ice, it is immature, unripe, a joke Old-Fashioned. I don’t mention this lightly, as in the next scene, Tillich is drinking again, in a glass without rocks, his bourbon appears to have something in it – a cherry? No, it’s not a Manhattan – and why would it be, in the confines of his dwelling – but the symbolism of seriousness is all the more there. He’s not sipping or slurping at a tourist drink, which involves ice and even a straw, he’s drinking. Manhattans are made to be drunk, just like that bottle of rye by the typewriter. I’m going to drag this out a little further because it’s important.

Art, like a good drink, is never perfect nor will it perfect you. You imagine it to be quenching but you only thirst for more. You can try to put in less vermouth or the right vermouth (think of the so-called “Perfect Manhattan” with its blend of vermouths). Even then it’s never quite right but notice how expert alcoholics are acknowledging the essential problem. If it’s not too sweet it’s not sweet enough. It’s not something you have one of and are satisfied forever, no more than you would quit sex after an ecstatic lay. Schrader is big on this feeling: he is, at least for your moment in the cinema with him, a Manhattan drinker, a bourbon drinker. (In fact, this is a repeated scene in many of his films.) Like this family of drinks, almost everything he does is understated, potentially disturbing, but then, crescendo, big flavor.  In fact, there are three primary loud notes in The Card Counter.

The first big note takes Tillich back to his past in Iraq. The Abu Ghraib scenes are nightmares, but still not overdone. This is accomplished through brevity and simplicity. We can’t smell in cinema – a sense cleverly invoked in Tillich’s monologue at the buffet – but we are jarred by loud riffs of self-hatred rock. (It will return later when Tillich insists Cirk shut off such music in the car.) The primary cinematic effect Schrader uses is from a wide camera lens I have never seen in effect before, which curls the edges of the screen away from the viewer; it’s not a question of “perfect” but of a simple distortive effect. It works with the winding corridors of the prison. Note that we are also ripped away from the corporate indoors Schrader has been reveling in: lots of prisons and dank places in The Card Counter. Even the pool scene is a send up of California parties: grey, dirty, unsexual. In one Abu Ghraib scene, it’s not even clear if the wall of bars is straight or if the inhabitants have twisted their reality in their suffering. This suggestion is effective, because dreams, too, are so distorted. Worse, if you are imprisoned at Abu Ghraib, how sure are you of even your surroundings? Schrader presents the torture sight as a modern Bosch of degradation. Everything is a horror, you are exposed in ways you never imagined. So it is when the Manhattan’s notes are too bold, a dark wine of sugar and death and hangovers.

Contrast this to the trailer I saw before the viewing, one of the latest, hair-on-fire MCU contraption, where the entire budget of The Card Counter is expended to make some biologically impossible thing absurdly powerful and undefeatable, only it must be defeated, will be defeated. So hard does this tedious, ball-kicking literalism work for an increasingly bare return on titillation for adult twelve year-olds. Cirk’s fear at being tortured by the revealed and activated Tillich is far more terrifying, and all it takes is a single push to the chest and a nearby bag of tools: he’s already serious, and Cirk and the audience are catching up too late. If the Venom monster suddenly entered such a scene, it might as well be wearing a tutu.

An interesting wrinkle vis a vis drinks: when the two order again, it’s something different. It’s different each time, and I knew, even before it was spoken, that it would be important that they were different. Schrader is not using the drinks to prop up a caricature, Bond-style. Instead, the drinks serve a purpose and a mood. Schrader smudges all the lines to keep his characters human, and only lingers when it really matters. We’ll be coming back to that.

That’s also a good moment to bring up Isaac’s performance, which is convincingly haunted. He is rarely fully present but always observant; this is the touch of death within. There’s also something surprisingly De Niro about him in one exact moment, when they get up from the red lounge chairs to head back to his place; I wonder if Isaac cultivated that, or is that veneer of purpose simply something De Niro embodied and which explains his popularity. Either way, the pain within is kept there, just below, until the right moments by the actor and director. When Tillich combs his hair, we know it’s part of holding it all together: rough up that perfection on a whim and Tillich may come apart.

Indeed, Tillich’s visual appearance and care of it relates to the current culture of preparedness. Of course it’s fine but it is fetishized. It’s embarrassing that even a recent Coke commercial can put the argument to it, where a wife appreciates her husband’s self-care for his abs but recognizes him carrying out more central duties is what really matters. An actor like Isaac is very good in spots like this, not being an overdone personality while also being very well put together. We know he’ll do what he needs to and suffer when he can’t: perfection is unimportant, even if he is a little vain. He is not above his suffering or due his redemption, as in a more cartoonish plot. In poker culture, which is trapped in perpetual boyhood, this fetish is overwrought to the max as a balancing act against the central tenet of playing cards in perpetuum. No one loves masculine life coaches more; no one is immune to irony more. Casinos and card rooms cater to these overgrown boys – they constantly wonder why more women don’t play but how could the answer be more clear? Do I have to spell it out?

Going back to the beginning, I liked the opening credit texture, and wondered where it was going, as it was clear that a mind like Schrader’s wouldn’t leave something like that to randomness. Later it echoes the carpets and even the unused tennis court and the general mediocrity the lost find themselves in. These polyester palaces of play surround us, even while we live and suffer serious things. Piped in pop music simultaneously lulls us to sleep while the vocalist implores us with wisdom and hope. In other words, we can find good things anywhere, certainly even in a casino. Tiffany is attracted to Tillich not because he is moody, that is not why women love dark men, but because of the seriousness implied. They wonder when the necessary carnival and fakery of society all ends and someone will see them through the grand illusion.

This doesn’t mean happiness and lightness are nothing. The voyage through light that she takes Tillich on is profound. This is the second loud note in the film, a walk through the Missouri Botanical Garden. There is hope, there is beauty and amazement, even if it is electrically generated. It’s just that we need contrasts. The casino itself is equally electric but is perpetual fake mirth; we are catered literally to death by these institutions. Fattened and wined until the very end. For Las Vegas gamblers, it’s amusing that Martini’s on Durango offers “play” among its attractions, because there is no real play there. There’s no physical activity, no real engagement, just consumption. You should swim as much as possible and use the gym at your hotel if only to fight the man. Aside from nursing homes and senior centers, there is no more common place to find the decrepit and forlorn; our sitting for long stretches at their addiction counters only ages us more and more quickly. Yet your aunt and uncle’s Medicare cards are not accepted at check-in, if only because we like this illusion a lot more than other ones.

Because of this, it’s relieving, unburdening, to see such a great film, a bit paradoxically, given the dark subject matter. Poker and Las Vegas kill good things, but by casting the lens on hard things, there is catharsis, I suppose. Moreover, it can be difficult to write well, never mind create a major motion picture, about these important things; after all, there is not much appetite seriousness in the world, nevermind in poker. It’s uncomfortable and exciting for the community when someone bothers to look at us, maybe I should be more understanding of the knee-jerk reaction against this movie. Yet, our standards are so low in poker. If we look, for instance, at the major poker outlets, it’s as if they took classes at click-bait schools or take those SEO articles like the Gospel of John. It pains me not just because it’s unsatisfying but because it reminds me how unserious my main activity is; there is a hint there as to why the great poker films can’t be all about poker, nor can they get lost in the details of the game. In The Card Counter, we’re often spared beyond visuals of Tillich playing. Schrader does not attempt to break the illusion of the game too often; there is narration on its processes, but he moves on from them in favor of the visual as the plot builds. In this sense, it’s not a poker genre movie, and that is probably a good thing.

Speaking of, one of the amusing contradictions of the initial reaction to The Card Counter was that it was held in contempt compared to Rounders, a great poker film so bad at poker detail it doesn’t even get the positions right or even represent the chip amounts correctly in several key moments. In Rounders, a flamboyant Russian gangster faggot frolics in the capacious theater of his club. He splashes chips and threats egomaniacally, listens to cookies, and ultimately gives away his money through the performative hubris of a vaudeville villain. The moral for much of the poker community? NL50 grinders demand that the next film be just as realistic.

This realism, or at least verisimilitude, is important but we’re not wrong to love ridiculous characters. Our Venoms are necessary. When something is an exaggeration, meanings are shifted – it’s not just about what is “good” or “right” or “bad” or “wrong.” The modesty of accurate representation can touch far more effectively than the epic, just as the heightened world of the epic can inspire awe. The stale indoors – a word that comes up in Tillich’s dialogue- deescalates the pressure on the protagonists to be heroic; in other words, we’re not stuck in the characters’ heads but seeing them as they are. Realism isn’t just static sets, though. Among all the good performances and savvy movie making here, the simple two expressions that crossed Haddish’s face in the love scene struck me immediately as meaningful and true. Love scenes often self-sabotage a film’s coherence because the characters lose their consistency at what is obviously a key occurrence. The brief moments of accuracy Haddish and Schrader give us, of strong acting and strong directorial choice, add up to us believing what is going on, and add subtlety to what happens later. The final image would not be the same without LaLinda’s precise reaction to Tillich: again the pattern is everything. Rounders is closer to a conventional epic, or at least a classic hero’s journey: the aim is different and different approaches should be expected.

Now, I refuse to believe it is a coincidence that this film was released upon the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The connection is avoidable but direct. It’s not the anniversary it was, say, even last year, and anyone not wrestling with the costs of our nation’s foreign policy immaturity is foolish in the least. It’s a major theme in the movie, too: consequences of youth. “I was young,” says Tillich, when evading a question about what he did. I hope that is a good enough excuse, because, well, I have found the opposite to be true, and certainly our pained hero pays a heavy, heavy price for a foray abroad and outside conscience.

The final image, the third loud note, is that price, and thinking of it even now as I write I find myself still moved. There’s been so much bad faith in the last couple years in our country, meaning bad faith arguments and projects, more clout seeking, more horrible influence peddlers, but at an entirely more consequential, political level. It is in high gear as we speak. The final image is no such political statement, it is personal to Tillich and LaLinda. Yes, it is marginally weighted by race, but is not about race: to see the difference is to understand much. Tillich is trapped by the glass and those “choices,” and she is thus trapped as well. The trap is treble, though, as she must bend her hand past the artificial nails, themselves a trapping of the life she fell into and fell out of grace from in St. Louis: the past and the limitations we give ourselves. “Choices” has been mentioned more than once, and is obviously important to any meditation on responsibility, one of Schrader’s deepest preoccupations, but when we embrace the pain of our choices while wanting more – that is what is tragic or wistful. The two press their fingers together, incomplete and untouching.

Bizarrely, the lights at the Red Rock Regal Cinema come up well before this moment lands fully, and the audience hurries out. It only takes a minute or two, but that is an age on screen, and I am alone in the theater, almost. There is one forlorn employee, masked and brown, staring at the screen. It’s all one needs to see, in one respect. It will not leave my mind, as Schrader no doubt intended; as observer, it also won’t leave my mind that no one stayed but me and an employee to watch it. Soon I’ll be back on those same stale carpets and on the stale felt where I ply my trade. 

Film is a visual medium, and Schrader has done his story justice, earning this pure, lingering image without the heavy-handedness it would take on in most other contexts. It’s not that LaLinda and William are in profound love or that some normally unbridgeable social gap has been crossed; I almost don’t want to bring it up as the closing will be subject to poor interpretations, but the director didn’t go through all this to hide his vision. The pattern has worked; we’ve been trapped inside with Tillich and have completed his character’s cycle. He has not escaped but now part of him is freed. Schrader is cycling, too. He’s often criticized for repetition. He’s old. Like the titular objections, these criticisms miss the point.  It’s hard to believe he’s still doing it, still creating the great American art, and how grateful, now caught in the Las Vegas hellscape, I am to see it.

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