The Card Counter Is an Unexpectedly Powerful Anti-War Film
There’s an old argument among filmmakers about whether it’s possible to make a truly anti-war film. In the 1970s, French New Wave director François Truffaut famously declared that every war film was inherently pro-war, because to depict war on screen was to glorify it, showing it as valorous and heroic. In response, Steven Spielberg, after making Saving Private Ryan, argued that “Every war film, good or bad, is an anti-war movie.”
The Card Counter isn’t a war film, or at least not what you’d normally think of as one. Much of the action does, in fact, take place inside casinos, just as the title implies, and there is plenty of card-game lore for those interested in such things. But it is, in its own way, an anti-war film, a movie about the dark legacy of America’s post-9/11 war on terror, and in particular the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques—more rightly labeled torture—deployed on prisoners at Abu Ghraib. For what it depicts is not the glory of war on the battlefield, but the ugly, almost invisible psychological toll that wartime acts of inhumanity inflict long after a war is over.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader, it’s the story of a professional card player who goes by the name of William Tell (a steely, salt-and-pepper-haired Oscar Isaac). Tell travels the casino circuit playing small-stakes games and winning a little at a time. He’s a loner, quiet and intense, with some odd habits, including a practice of wrapping every object in his hotel rooms in white cloth, giving his surroundings a blank and ghostlike aesthetic.
Tell, it turns out, has a dark past: He was a torturer at Abu Ghraib, and he served time in military prison for his actions. Now he spends his days killing time, counting cards, and earning just enough to live on—that is, until he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man whose father also served at Abu Ghraib, and later beat his wife and child before committing suicide. Cirk has a misbegotten plan to attack and torture an ex-military contractor, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), an interrogation adviser who presided over the facility where both
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