The ramifications of 9/11 have loomed largely over this country for the last two decades. Though, in many ways they have been forgotten by the mainstream and pushed to the background of American thought. Sadly, it took the awful images out of Afghanistan in the recent weeks to remind us how much suffering has transpired because of our response. One of those responses was the way we chose to treat our prisoners and how those in humane acts destroyed the humans in both sides of the torture.
Director Paul Schrader has long explored the cross between Americans and the actions of its government. This is probably remembered most vividly in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’, but Schrader’s recent film ‘First Reformed’ was equally subversive. ‘The Card Counter’ walks the same line. In this film, Oscar Isaac plays one of the soldiers in the infamous pictures of detainee abuse out of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He was sent to prison himself for ten years as punishment. While the individual who trained him to torture was out making big money off selling his torture tactics.
When we meet William (Isaac), he is out of prison and an expert card player. His life is of routine and discipline to his game. The only thing throwing a curveball in his plans is a woman named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), and that’s just because she wants to push him to play cards in a more high stakes manner. Everything changes when William meets a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) at a seminar by his whole torture trainer Gordo (Willem Dafoe). It is in this chance encounter that William discovers the boys plans to kill Gordo for the crime of destroying his father in the war. After committing many of the same horrible acts that landed William in jail, Cirk’s father came back home to destroy his family and inevitably end his own life.
From this point, the story becomes a journey to save the boy from irreversible actions and William having to relive his tragic past. A journey that gives these performers all a chance to shine in subtle ways. Every actor in this film is superb, but it really is Isaac’s show. And a few well placed monologues are delivered in such a way that allow Isaac to truly pierce into the soul of the character. It’s a slow burn, but the performance is a revelation. This can also be said for the writing. Schrader’s script is so detailed and at times intricate in its depiction of the rules of card games. Which is matched with a slow revelation of the horrors of torture.
The juxtaposition of these ideas works very well and will leave audiences thinking about the ramifications of 9/11 as they walk out of the theater. Which is important on this 20th anniversary of that horrible attack. There were so much more than the 3,000 souls in those attacks that lost their lives that day. And in many ways, our country lost part of its soul.