William Tell, which in one of the few moments of self-revelation states admits might not be his real name, is a professional gambler. Specifically, he is a card counter, and he tells us that as long as he sticks to “modest goals,” most casinos won’t kick him out for doing what he does. Bill, as he prefers to be called, is a very private person and keeps his feelings to himself. That is an asset in his nomadic life as a professional card player, but not one when it comes to making connections with other people.
But the wall he has built around himself gains a couple of cracks starting with when he meets Cirk (that’s with a “C,” as he is constantly telling people he meets), the son of an old army buddy. Cirk’s father had committed suicide after leaving the service, starting Cirk (Tye Sheridan) and his mother down a rocky path in life. Cirk would like to find the person he believes in responsible for the pain that drove his father to take his own life, in order to extract a similar price. He takes Cirk on the road with him in order to hopefully show him a better path in life to take. The other person that Bill let’s his guard somewhat down for is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), an agent for a group of wealthy men who stake particularly talented poker players for high stakes games, in return for a percentage of their winnings.
Don’t think that this will be a fun thriller about a card sharp traveling the country looking to make a big score, because this movie only uses that as a masquerade for something deeper. Bill is haunted by his time in Abu Ghraib and the fact that he participated in the torture of prisoners there. He was one of a small handful of low-ranking soldiers who were held accountable. Naturally, the ones who gave the orders escaped the justice they deserved.
With The Card Counter, writer/director Paul Schrader is once again showing his deeply religious roots and we are all the better for it here. Bill is looking to absolve himself of his sins committed at Abu Ghraib through trying to help Cirk come to grips with his own father’s guilt and suicide over his time there. And when he fails, he tries to find absolution in completing Cirk’s eye-for-an-eye mission, something a well-timed, slow pullback tells us that the movie does not condone in any way. And as Bill struggles for his own soul and peace of mind, Schrader is suggesting that the United States is as well. The illegal torture conducted at Abu Ghraib is a stain on the country’s soul, one that Schrader is suggesting that we have yet to come to grips with or atoned for. (And I tend to agree with him there.)
Isaac’s work here is a masterclass in subtly. Bill keeps his emotions securely bottled up and Isaac downplays the character to show how much control he has over himself. It is only when he seems to take a shine to Cirk or starts to enter into a very tentative flirtation with La Linda that we see something peek out from the facade ever so slightly. And even when it seems like he is not giving us much to latch onto, and despite the horrors of his sins, we still find ourselves invested in him, hoping that he finds the expiation he so desperately is seeking.