Credit: Heidi Hartwig
by Matt McCracken Film

Best Films of 2021: The Card Counter

January 8, 2022

#18. In a time of corporate sameness – in which films operate based on formula that are formally and structurally identical and guaranteed to deliver to audiences’ narrative and beats which satisfy expectations encouraged and habituated through cultural saturation – comes Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, a film that will feel quite familiar to those acquainted with entries in its auteur’s filmography of the last decade. Much like directors as varied as Pedro Costa and Hong Sang-soo, Paul Schrader’s approach harkens back to past masters such as Ozu, Bergman and Bresson, known — in the manner of his contemporaries — for variations on form and theme that mine and reprise repetition in a manner some have considered similar to contemporary filmmaking practice. While perhaps superficially justified, this utilization of similarity is better read as wholly distinct in deployment and purpose. Schrader’s transcendental style, as he refers to it, functions in what might be termed an “unnarcotizing” fashion, wherein repetition and the ruptures it contains and emphasizes challenges rather than placates or sedates; images underline and bring to bear concept and idea through cinematographic patience and inter-filmic reference. Much like the filmmaker’s celebrated First Reformed, The Card Counter showcases an auteur thinking with and through film history so as to underscore parallels and breed deviation in terms of a fracture of the known.

In this 2021 work, we are introduced to and guided through the precision of tortured living, in body and soul — each present as the reified and rareified relation of calculation and chance that occupy the gambling protagonist and Abu Ghraib torturer, William Tell (Oscar Isaac). Schrader’s study of this correlation is immaculately crafted and deeply politicized, as he excavates and excoriates the reliance on the blind and the bluff as intrinsic and peculiar to a distinctively American cruelty only legible — and even then, barely so — in blowback. While this writer knows little of gambling, the notions of concealment and estimation inherent in poker and blackjack enumerate all that is wagered in the “all in” of committing oneself to a trajectory of national and personal violence that cost everything for the perpetrator, and all the more for victim. In this way, The Card Counter elucidates the fallout of a world in which many gave everything to a nation with their own lives serving as chips, and found the winnings to be blood on palms and scars on hearts. The film’s world is one in which vapid celebrations of American exceptionalism underscore and describe behaviors of individual and systemic vengeance and self-barbarization, while monied parties offer less than what’s wagered to those who played their hand. If The Card Counter could be said to be less existential than First Reformed, it is the precision of its images and their elisions that underwrite in similarity and variation the gaping wound of a post-9/11 rabidness that seethes in the hearts of the many who wrestle with a barren, imprisoning existence; one that seeks connection beyond the memory of the screams extracted from the permanently traumatized or dead for secrets that meant nothing.