Schrader: The Card Counter (2021)
Over the last couple of years, Paul Schrader has gradually been returning to some of the concerns of his classic period, but with a later and darker inflection. The Card Counter is the latest film in his journey, and a continuation of his “night worker” series of films. In this case, the night worker is William Tillich, played by Oscar Isaac, a gambler and card counter who lives by night, wandering from casino to casino, and never staying in one place for too long. William’s melancholy rambling is driven by another period of night work – his time as a soldier at Abu Ghraib, where he played a role in the illegal torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners. He spent time in jail for his crimes, and since then has only felt at home on the casino circuit, where he lives from game to game with the doomy fatalism of Schrader’s other night workers.
These revelations about William’s backstory only emerge gradually, but it’s hard to capture the film in its totality without them, meaning that watching The Card Counter unfold in real time is an eerily emergent experience. For the first act, it’s clear that something is wrong with William’s life, although it’s hard to picture what, beyond the regular kinds of ennui that we see in films about gambling. He seems to be inhabiting a kind of late world, an America that has turned in upon itself and retreated to a hushed distance from its former aspirations, not unlike the pregnant silences of Twin Peaks: The Return. William also appears to be unable or unwilling to make connections with people. He’s sceptical of anything resembling a public sphere – or only seems safe in the self-consciously artificial public sphere of the casino floor.
We first glimpse William’s past in a casino that happens to be hosting a Global Security Conference and Exposition. As William wanders past the weaponry on display, he drifts into a session on “Recent Innovations in Interrogation and Truthfulness,” hosted by Major John Gordo, played by William Dafoe, and also attended by a young man named Cirk Baufort, played by Tye Sheridan. Cirk approaches William after the presentation and introduces himself as the son of Roger Baufort, one of William’s former colleagues in Abu Ghraib. It turns out that both William and Roger were acting under the direct instructions of Gordo, but that Gordo escaped capture because he was wise enough not to pose for photos with the victims. For that reason, Cirk insists, he needs to be punished – and he enlists William to help him with his revenge, which involves driving to Gordo’s house and turning his torture back upon him.
While William is ambivalent about Cirk’s plan, he does agree with him in one key particular – that the only reason he was caught, and imprisoned, was because he posed in one of the infamous photographs taken at Abu Ghraib. In retrospect, those photographs ushered in a new media sensibility in the United States – a fixation with found footage and torture porn that inexorably changed the way that we understand cinema. Schrader also presents the events of Abu Ghraib as a distortion of cinematic realism, through two key flashback scenes. In the first, we cut to William and Gordon moving through the prison, as an elaborate lens distortion causes the space to fan out in baroque patterns on either side of the screen. In the second, Schrader subjects us to a glitchy montage of black ops sites around the world, accompanied, like the first flashback, by an abrasive collage of noise rock and found sound.
These distorted images form the core of the film, while the action is bookended by two torture sequences – the tortures at Abu Ghraib, now in the distant past, and the torture that Cirk is planning to enact upon Gordo. Yet the film that occurs in between couldn’t be more different in style and tone – to the point where it plays as an aesthetic of sublimation, a contemplation of what is at stake in sublimating the new media regime that Abu Ghraib incited. In fact, this may be Schrader’s most classical film since Abu Ghraib, although it’s a muted classicism, a mechanism for repressing violence and trauma, and curiously empty at heart, as if Schrader doesn’t quite believe in the project, and distrusts his own aesthetic. In that sense, The Card Counter is a counterpoint to The Canyons – both films register a certain decline in classical cinematic style, but where The Canyons elegises and traverses it, starting with its opening montage of decaying multiplexes, The Card Counter sublimates and buries it.
That’s not to say that The Card Counter is any less powerful than The Canyons – there’s a volatility in its sublimation. Although Abu Ghraib is fifteen years in the past, William insists that “the body remembers – it knows it all.” He’s talking about his physical body here, but the same comment could apply to the cinematic body, the way that we mediate our own bodily experiences through whatever cinema means at any one point in time. During the late 2000s, I remember cinema renewing a new assault upon the body, and upon what it means to be embodied, through the dual languages of found footage and torture porn horror, both of which were galvanised by the imagery of Abu Ghraib. Over a decade later, and in the wake of high-definition streaming, the conspicuous ugliness of that moment has all but vanished. While Schrader briefly brings it back, in his flashback scenes, he seems prescient it can’t ramify in the present like it once did, and that the violence now lies in the subsequent sublimation.
We first glimpse this sublimated violence (or violence as sublimation) in the opening credits, which take place against a poker table, signalling the film’s fixation with granular, stippled surfaces – surfaces that seem smooth from a distance, but turn out to be more viscerally textural when you get close to them. Likewise, these opening credits introduce the main soundscape – a mercurial electro-rock texture that work to distract William from the screeches of Abu Ghraib while also preventing silence from descending and shrouding him in his own thoughts. These musical textures are stippled in a similar way, playing like soft rock when we first hear them, but gradually dissociating into more angular trajectories, and almost – but never quite – congealing into full-fledged songs. They sit at the very nexus between soundtrack and score, producing an emergent sonic field that is never quite stable or secure.
This oscillation between smooth and stippled surfaces paves the way for a remarkably dynamic performance from Isaac, precisely because of its flatness and stasis, both of which are held so tightly that they inevitably suggest a whole world of repressed trauma lying beneath them. The more he controls his body, the more you sense another bodily regime buried beneath his rigour and routine – one where torture, humiliation and degradation are the norm. This makes him an outstanding card counter, a skill he learned at Abu Ghraib, since it means that he can see past the calm and serenity of the blackjack table to the volatility and complexity lying beneath it, digging further as he becomes stiller. In another kind of film, he might “snap,” but here he just stipples, showing small textural tics only to subsume, subordinate and sublimate them back into the procedural regularity of his gambling lifestyle.
As that might suggest, William expects a damaged public sphere, and moves through America as if any public sphere he encounters is liable to reveal its damage – the long-term legacy of Abu Ghraib – if he spends too much time in it. He can only deal with provisional and transitory spaces – he doesn’t even stay in the casinos he frequents, and gravitates towards off-brand casinos, gambling halls whose glamour is faded enough to camouflage the paucity of this latter-day public sphere. Even in his motel rooms, he wraps every object in fabric, anonymising the space to protect it from the memories of Abu Ghraib, despite the fact that this immediately suggests that torture (or some equivalent atrocity) is always on the horizon. You sense that remembering the torture of Abu Ghraib is the biggest torture of all, meaning that William seeks out spaces that both invoke and contain it – or else departs space altogether, setting Schrader’s camera adrift across the anonymous dead zones of Middle America, where it fades, and his scenes end, too abruptly and mercurially for place to ramify.
This retreat from the public sphere might sound drab, but it ends up having the opposite effect. Much as The Card Counter revives Schrader’s night worker films, it revives his earlier transcendental style, as William enters into a monadic, hermetic and almost solipsistic dialogue with himself. Specifically, this plays as a latter-day adaptation of Diary of a Country Priest, one of the films Schrader wrote about in his study of transcendental style. William’s sublimation produces a meditative and mindful intensity, a mystical immanence that he records in his own diary: “hours pass, days pass, hand after hand, each like the one before – then something happens.” This diary takes William into the twilight of his soul – virtually all the scenes are lit artificially, or set at dawn and dusk, on the rare occasion we venture outside. Since William has to remain in constant motion to keep his past at bay, everything feels mutable, liable to sudden transitions and revelations, keeping the future curiously unformed.
This is Schrader’s idea of grace, and he translates it into one of the most beautiful films of his career. Whereas his 21st-century output has been largely disinterested in conventional style, or retreated from style altogether, The Card Counter relishes style in a grand old-fashioned way, even as it reframes it as a vehicle for sublimation and revelation, and so prevents it settling into mere nostalgic classicism. The film abounds with tracking-shots, paired with gorgeous cinematography, helmed by Alexander Dynan, that sees every surface gleaming and every light precisely calibrated. Between the languorus location shots, the sinuous tracking-shots and the tactile close-ups, Schrader suggests another cinematic body may be possible – one that only subordiates the legacy of Abu Ghraib to eventually transcend it, even if this means entering a fully disembodied digital realm where “the feeling of being forgiven by another and forgiving oneself are so similar that it’s meaningless to pretend they’re distinct.”
We see this reparative prospect crystallise in the most beautiful scene in the film – and one of the most beautiful of Schrader’s career. Early on, William forms a connection with La Linda, a blackjack backer, played by Tiffany Haddish, who offers to sponsor him all the way to the blackjack world series. While they don’t quite develop a romance, they do form an understanding, and this culminates with them taking a walk through the Missouri Botanical Gardens’ “Garden Glow,” a sublime light show that sees the plants and structures covered in millions of neon bulbs. This is gorgeous enough in itself, but Schrader gradually pulls back from the action to an aerial shot that seamlessly segues into CGI, as the individual lights congeal into a series of luminous abstractions. Whereas the smooth surface of the blackjack table gradually dissociates into stipples during the opening scenes, here the stipples of the fairy lights recongeal into neon smoothness, elevating us into the digital ether as they do so.
This is the film’s vision of redemption – the brief moment when it transcends the tortured body politic of Abu Ghraib. Yet this redemption doesn’t last, and in fact precipitates the return of the tortured body with a vengeance. First, William signals his frustration with Cirk’s plan by sitting him down in his motel room, pulling out his torture kit, and threatening to work him over if he continues to hunt down Gordo. It’s as if Cirk has disrupted William’s own ability to both invoke and repress the past by invoking it too much, and trying to address it too violently. From there, Cirk heads directly to Gordo’s house, and signals to William that he has arrived by sending him a grainy photograph of the front door – right when William is in the midst of the world series finals. These finals culminate the smooth sublimation of his blackjack trajectory, and prompt Schrader’s most stylised sequences so far, so it’s doubly disarming when William gets this grainy digital photo, which suggests a totally different image regime.
This image dictates the last part of the film, suggesting a more pessimistic future for the cinematic body, and the future of the cinematic image. At one level, it feels like part of the image regime that resulted from Abu Ghraib – it’s grainy, glitchy and elliptical enough to belong to the found footage and torture porn era. However, unlike found footage, it remains relatively static, while no graphic depiction of torture porn ever ensues. This late residue of Abu Ghraib diminishes the cinematic image in a newer and more literal way, ushering in a dimmed, denuded and decimated spatial scheme that also recalls the self-effacing “minor” address of Twin Peaks: The Return. Upon learning that Gordo shot Cirk on sight, William leaves the blackjack game midway through, displacing what seemed certain to be the final showdown of the film – an ultra-patriotic blackjack master, who cries “USA! USA!” at every opportunity. Between William and this patriot, it felt like we were in for an allegorical conflict, a battle for what it takes to secure the soul of America, and consign its tortures to the past.
By contrast, the final showdown takes place in Gordo’s house – a dim, dark, drab, totally empty space, where every object is also covered in blankets and fabric. This is a non-place, just as it is a non-image, and when William escorts Gordon off to another room to torture him to death, it doesn’t feel like ellipsis, or like a tactful elision of violence. Rather, Gordo’s cries of anguish appear to be emanating from this non-image itself, evoking a non-body, or a complete devolution of the cinematic body, that is more traumatic in its implications than even the tortured bodies of the Abu Ghraib era. At least torture porn and found footage were confident in cinema’s ability to mediate the body, if only as trauma. By the end of The Card Counter, cinema feels totally discorrelated from the body, incapable of ever connecting again with the body, even or especially when the tortured body of an older era is its explicit subject matter. Hence the haunting final shot, which comes after La Linda visits William in jail, and the two hold their hands on either side of the glass, in the same pose, for the entire credits.
In this final gesture, Schrader falls back upon the most primal and basic bodily vulnerability – two actors trying to hold the same position for an extended amount of time. In its own way, this is more visceral than the offscreen torture scene – one final test of whether cinema can mediate our bodies, suspend our bodies between seat and screen, in the way that it did in the wake of Abu Ghraib. The answer is no, since after a while the image just looks digitally composited, and may well be – the point is that it doesn’t matter any more. And that is the final trauma of The Card Counter, what makes it late work – it starts off repressing the negative mediation of the body post-Abu Ghraib, but ends up eulogising it, and even longing for it, as the index of a cinematic body, a visceral link to cinema, that has now evaporated. Negative mediation of the body has given way to a non-body, an absent body, which is perhaps why The Card Counter feels so empty as well – hauntingly attuned to its own voids.
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