In ‘The Card Counter,’ an Iraq War Veteran Uses Casino Gambling to Numb His Pain

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The Card Counter Oscar Isaac
Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell in "The Card Counter." (Focus Features)

In “The Card Counter,” Oscar Isaac plays a veteran trying to forget his stint as an interrogator at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Calling himself “William Tell,” former PFC William Tillich blots out his past at the card tables, roaming the country playing low-stakes blackjack and poker at unglamorous casinos.

Tell spent nearly a decade in U.S. Disciplinary Barracks Leavenworth after the media published photos of enhanced interrogation at Abu Ghraib. The troops learned their technique from veteran-turned-military contractor John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), who could not be prosecuted for his role in the prison culture because civilian contractors were not subject to prosecution under the Uniform Code of Military Justice when his crimes took place.

When we meet Tell, his life has settled into a routine. He lives in cheap motels and wraps all the furniture in white sheets once he checks in, an odd habit that’s never really explained. He’s mastered card counting during his prison stay and uses that skill to beat the casinos while making sure he never wins big enough to piss off the management. Having found order and a kind of peace in the routine of prison life, he’s trying to keep his world as structured as he can.

That structure disappears once he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of a fellow Abu Ghraib veteran who returned home, abused his family and committed suicide. Cirk blames Gordo for his father’s demise and wants to mete out his own version of justice.

Tell sees a chance for redemption if he can save this kid. Inviting Cirk to be his wingman, he takes the young man on the road and tries to be a father figure. He also contacts La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a broker who connects talented gamblers with the financial backers who will allow them to play the big-time poker circuit. Tell wins the cash and splits the proceeds with his investor.

If he makes enough money, he can set Cirk on a path to the kind of productive life he never could have after his military service. He aims to make the kid forget about Gordo and the past and focus on a future life. If Cirk can pay off his college debts, finish his education and make peace with his mother, then maybe the kid’s life can help make up for Tell’s past sins.

“The Card Counter” is a straight-up film noir, a movie filled with average guys who can’t catch a break and are dying for the one big score that can give them a shot at redemption. If you’re a fan of that genre’s post-World War II crime dramas, you can figure how things will turn out. Exactly how the characters meet their fates may surprise you. Whether Tell finds redemption in the end is open to interpretation.

Tell has nightmares that are flashbacks to Abu Ghraib, scenes that are a rough contrast to the peaceful and steady life that the gambler has tried to create. The tension around the poker table seems positively soothing when compared to Tell’s past life.

The movie, written and directed by the legendary Paul Schrader, will open in theaters on Sept. 10, 2021. Schrader, fresh off the late-career success of the Oscar-nominated “First Reformed,” has written some of the most revered films of the past 50 years. Schrader wrote Vietnam War classic “Rolling Thunder,” “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” and directed “American Gigolo” and the 1982 remake of “Cat People.”

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