REVIEW / FILM OPINION – Oscar Isaac is fascinating in this terrible story staged with the crazy darkness that characterizes the cinema of Paul Schrader. Quest for an impossible redemption, an acid and violent chronicle of human cruelty, “The Card Counter” is a pure Paul Schrader, presented and warmly applauded at the 78th Venice Film Festival.
A Paul Schrader film is always an event, as expected as it is feared, as the screenwriter and director can inflict a darkness on his audience, the sensation of which is almost horrific. After the very successful On the road to redemption with Ethan Hawke, where his favorite theme of redemption found a salutary breath in a subtle treatment of spirituality, Paul Schrader sticks to the most down-to-earth with The Card Counter, stuck to the fate of an ex-military converted into a professional casino player. This man, William Tillich, is played by Oscar Isaac, who finds there one of his most profound roles and certainly his most radical performance.
Chronicle of remorse and redemption
Paul Schrader holds a special position in the Hollywood landscape, with very personal writings and accomplishments. His scenarios were sublimated by the achievements of Martin Scorsese, with whom he shares a very strong community of themes and style. But when Paul Schrader writes and directs – here Martin Scorsese is a producer – we never see the enthusiastic impetus, the sometimes flamboyant and emphatic side that we find for example in Raging Bull Where Open grave. In The Card Counter, no emphasis, but pragmatism and a leaden cover that acts as a sky crushing its characters doomed to tragedy.
No heaven, and therefore no redemption. Instead, we follow William’s movements between impersonal motels and second-rate casinos, equally cold and devoid of personality. Far from the pomp and colors of Las Vegas, William travels and methodically plays blackjack and poker to keep his life. He knows how to count cards, but also knows that in these cases it is not necessary to win big, at the risk of being excluded from the casinos. Measured in his actions, his words and his earnings, he preserves his anonymity and travels his way without leaving a trace. Expression of this anonymous march, he covers all the furniture of his motel rooms with white sheets. Whatever may happen, and whatever has already happened, nothing should testify to its guilty presence.
Eternal return of a terrible past and its redemption
William had his first life as a CIA interrogator at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Between 2003 and 2004, during the war in Iraq, US military and CIA agents guilty of serious human rights violations by torturing, sexually abusing, injuring and executing detainees. Scandal revealed by photographs in which the torturers appear, only a high-ranking officer has been condemned, when almost all the soldiers appearing in the photos have been. In The Card Counter, William is one of those torturers, imprisoned for these facts to eight and a half years in prison, during which time he therefore learned to count cards.
This past catches up with him when he meets the young Cirk (Tye Sheridan), son of another Abu Ghraib torturer who subsequently committed suicide. Cirk blames Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), trainer and chief torturer in Abu Ghraib, now at the head of a private security company. Cirk will then share his plan with William. to torture and kill John Gordo. But William, rather than encouraging him, will try to turn him away to save the young man who dropped out of his studies, is riddled with debts, no longer sees his mother and ultimately only pursues this idea of revenge for which it is not cut.
Human tragedy and madness ad nauseam
His character is perhaps a source of horror, Oscar Isaac pulls off a major performance. He carries within him all the darkness of the world, all the madness and human cruelty since humanity stood on its two legs. Lonely, methodical, cold without being unpleasant, he is like a black sun spinning in a void. Charismatic as possible, dark and chilling eyes, he takes Cirk under his wing to the point of forcing him in a simulation of torture to abandon his project and get back on the right track, offering him enough to repay his debts. William knows that he can never be saved, forgiven, he will carry his cross to the grave but he still seeks a form of redemption by trying at all costs to save Cirk. Umpteenth …