The Dice Man Folds

Art & Culture | Mark Warburton 25 Nov 2021

Paul Schrader - the writer of the seminal Taxi Driver (1976) - has an affinity with the lost and damned; a devout Calvinist, Schrader constructs narratives around Kierkegarrdian anti-heroes, doubling down on the thematics of sin and redemption. Not as shorn of hope as his previous effort, First Reformed (2017), The Card Collector (2021), nonetheless, is an evocative reminder of the collateral damage power politics begets.


The spectre haunting the film’s narrative is the Neoliberal/Neoconservative unspoken consensus to assimilate the Middle-East into an Anglo-centric ‘end of history’. During the US' abject failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, an entrenched state of exception fenced off 'human-rights' in zones of extreme interrogations. It is here where Schrader’s anti-hero is born to his mentor, the archetypal radical. In First Reformed it is the secular environmentalist; in The Card Counter, it is a sadistic cog in the military-industrial complex: extremism in man always finds a conduit for its sublimation.


At the film’s heart is the PTSD repressing, former soldier turned professional gambler, William Tell, played by Oscar Isaac. Although tormented by the past, he fashions a stoic path; an avenue in which to redeem himself. On meeting Cirk, Tye Sheridan, he is reminded of his former self: blighted by obsessive fantasies of vengeance. Cirk becomes Oscar's project of salvation. If he can turn him around, away from a life in prison... It is the prison, the inside, that the film emphasises. Rarely do we see an external shot, the cast always at the mercy of their environs. This compulsion foreshadows Tell’s entire character arc; a man fated to be behind bars - of some kind - or risking it all in smoky casino halls.


Scharader continues, here, to attract high quality actors due to the intricacies of his character’s brooding, inner turmoil. Oscar Isaac, especially, is fast becoming one of the best of his generation. His versatility is second-to-none, with much of the film's gravitas dependent on his emotional depth. Sheridan, too, is a serious actor. Similar to Paul Dano in his precocious intuition, his performance is one of muted rage. 


Ultimately, The Card Counter treads a fine line between tragedy and life-affirming selflessness, tying up its story in the only way that makes sense. The film largely succeeds in interweaving sacrifice, brutality and redemption to tell a tale that will linger long in the memory of its viewers. 

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