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When life deals a heavy hand

In The Card Counter, Oscar Isaac cuts a lonesome figure, whose measured fixation with gambling masks a seedy past he’s trying hard not to reconcile with
Thu, Jul 28, 2022

In the final shot of The Card Counter, Oscar Isaac’s character does a seemingly simple hand gesture with his love interest as she sits across him, divided by a glass partition in the prison visitors’ section.

Despite its ambiguity and odd simplicity, this one act shows a man who has finally accepted who he is and has stopped fighting his fate. But a treacherous journey has to take place before he gets to that point.

In true Paul Schrader style, The Card Counter is a deep exploration of a man fighting demons that he ultimately has to face, regardless of the attempts he makes to escape them.

Schrader is a director who has tackled this theme before – that of tormented men trying to find meaning in life. Having written the screenplays for four of Martin Scorsese films with a similar theme – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ and Bringing Out the Dead, as well as his Oscar Best Director nomination-earning film First Reformed – it is a subject matter he handles with panache.

This time, he directs Isaac in this tense but exciting crime drama which finds most of its action happening in mid-sized casinos and cheap motels.

Isaac plays William ‘Bill’ Tell, a reclusive mystery man known for his card counting skills. But there’s more to Bill than meets the eye. For a guy so adept at blackjack, poker and virtually every high stakes gambling game, he always plays small and is quite disciplined in knowing when to stop. Every other night, he quietly takes his modest winnings and retires to a chosen motel for the evening. He keeps to himself and doesn’t bother anyone.

It’s only a matter of time until we figure out that Bill has a dark sordid past he is grappling with. Through flashbacks and narration (one of Schrader’s fortes), we learn that he was once a prison guard and interrogator who, along with others, was incarcerated in an Iraqi prison as the fall guys after the Abu Ghraib scandal where acts of brutal torture and other gross human rights violations were committed.

It was during the eight years he spent in prison that he learnt to count cards and develop the strict regime of order his life is now underscored by, even in the outside world. It is also why he is a disciplined gambler with a strict routine, leading a quiet life.

But even though he seems to have a handle on things, his ordered life is disrupted when he encounters Cirk, a young man full of rage, who turns out to be the son of one of the interrogators arrested with Bill in Iraq. Unlike Bill, Cirk’s dad unfortunately couldn’t cope with life after prison and his life devolved into an alcohol-fuelled cesspool, resulting with him committing suicide.

Cirk informs Bill that he is determined to make those responsible for his dad’s descent pay, as he is out for vengeance. He asks Bill to help him, but, still tormented and guilt ridden, Bill sees Cirk as a chance at meaningful redemption and instead elects to pay off all of his debts and encourages him to go to college, vehemently discouraging him from seeking revenge.

The events that follow knock the world that Bill had built for himself off its axis. A lot changes. Parts of himself that he never dared give expression to find a way out. He even falls in love. More importantly, however, The Card Counter becomes a searing character study of a man forced to look deep within himself and realise that what he perceives to be the shackles that bind him, are actually the things that give him the peace and freedom of mind he yearns for.

In the beginning of the film, Bill gives a narration of how much he hated closed spaces as a child. He was claustrophobic.

But he had to reconcile with himself that in his adult life, being incarcerated is what gave him life and despite making it out to the outside world, the imagined life he created during that period only revealed to him that where he truly belonged is inside. The hand gesture at the end of the film symbolises the balance Bill had finally gained by the acceptance of this reality.

  • The Card Counter is streaming on Showmax